Reaping the whirlwind

Clinton's move against Iraq raises the stakes for both parties in the impeachment debate.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On Tuesday evening, it seemed like nothing could stop the headlong momentum building in the House of Representatives to vote articles of impeachment against President Clinton. One day later, the decision by the United States and Great Britain to launch a massive attack against Iraq accomplished what had seemed impossible, and managed to postpone the debate on impeachment by at least a day, and likely more.

On Wednesday evening Capitol Hill was in chaos, as Congress members and their aides, some of whom had just returned from their districts, tried to take stock of the rapidly changing situation. Aides to fence-sitting GOP House moderates expressed uncertainty over how long the impeachment vote would be delayed and what effect the sudden turn of events might have.

But even amid the chaos, divisions remained obvious between those segments of the GOP who relished their drive for impeachment and those set to vote to impeach the president only reluctantly, if at all. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott quickly came out against Clinton's move on Iraq, while retiring Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., accused him of playing "Wag the Dog." "Never underestimate a desperate president," Solomon thundered. "This time he means business. What option is left for getting impeachment off the front page and maybe even postponed?" But such politicking wasn't playing well in the offices of GOP moderates, where aides reached early Wednesday evening expressed dismay over the more aggressively critical attacks on the president's decision.

Afraid that a prolonged delay of the impeachment vote might slow their momentum, House GOP leaders signaled Wednesday evening that the vote will only be delayed briefly, likely coming no later than Monday, and possibly sooner. Any further delay will push the measure well into Christmas week, when some might resist tackling such unpleasant business. But postponing the vote until after the holidays means it will become the business of the 106th Congress, where Democrats have at least five more votes, and the hard-line Republican leadership seems unlikely to let the issue get away.

For the GOP, pressing the impeachment vote under present circumstances is a risky strategy. But the pro-impeachment strategy the GOP has been pushing with increasing aggressiveness in recent weeks was already a high-stakes gamble, and the pressure that had already been applied to wavering moderate Republicans was fierce. Some continued to protest. "It's going to be like the government shutdowns," one frustrated House GOP staffer told Salon. But few Republicans were willing to concede, even off the record, that the GOP will face such bitter consequences for impeaching the president. And in the echo-chamber environment that Washington has become over the last week, some had apparently convinced themselves that there will be little price to pay, even though polls still show that almost two-thirds of the public remains firmly opposed to impeachment.

Why have moderate Republicans been lining up to declare their support for impeachment? The answer lies in a particularly brutal night-of-the-long-knives politics that has been practiced by pro-impeachment Republicans in the House, which has carried the day over the objections of the moderates.

Ever since the Republicans took over the House in 1994, a group of roughly 40 Republican moderates, predominantly from the Northeast, have served as a sort of electoral canary in a coal mine, signaling the House Republicans by their defection when the party's agenda became too noxiously conservative for the country as a whole. That's what happened during the government shutdowns of 1995; and it happened again in 1996 when the moderates agreed to raise the minimum wage and abandoned the GOP's rabidly anti-environmental party line. Jack Quinn, perhaps the quintessential Northeastern moderate, told me last August that decisions like that had "saved the majority" for the GOP.

But over the last week and a half, the word has gone out to Republican congressmen across the country that on the question of impeachment, there can be no compromise. Even Quinn, who until the weekend had been counted as dead set against impeachment, jumped shipped and announced on Tuesday that he would vote for it.

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Much has been made of the pressure being applied by Tom DeLay, the House Majority Whip, who is now, for all practical purposes, the acting speaker. But for many of the moderates, DeLay's fierce discipline appears to be less important than the overwhelming pressure being applied by conservative activists around the country. As GOP campaign consultant Jay Severin told me early Wednesday, Republican activists are making it clear that they will "never forgive and never forget" a vote against impeachment.

All week, wavering moderates have been told how they would face well-financed primary opponents in 2000 and become persona non grata in party ranks. And if they had any hopes of seeking higher office later on, forget it. As Severin put it, the moderates are being told to choose between getting "a broken arm, for sure, today or maybe getting a broken arm two years from now" at the polls. Given that choice, most are making an uneasy walk to the microphone and signing on to the impeachment express, hoping voters forget about breaking their arms in 2000. As soon as the impeachment vote is concluded, Severin told me, he plans to conduct a nationwide search for candidates who are willing to run against Republicans who say that they believe Clinton lied under oath and yet still vote against impeachment. He even plans to offer his services pro bono.

Of course, few of those who have opted for impeachment would speak openly about the pressure or the threats they're receiving. But look at the discipline being meted out to those who've decided not to play ball: Amo Houghton and Peter King, both of New York. Of the roughly two dozen GOP moderates who only recently seemed inclined to vote against impeachment, only those two have remained unwavering opponents of impeachment.

Soon after Houghton announced in a New York Times editorial Dec. 9 that he would oppose impeachment, a die-hard conservative announced he'd be challenging Houghton for his seat in 2000. King, who has been the most prominent Republican fighting against impeachment, has come under even more withering fire, in part perhaps because he is actually rather conservative, on policy grounds. It was one thing when a couple dozen other House Republicans stood with King in opposition to impeachment. But now that he stands almost alone, all of the animus is being directed at him, and the depth of the anger is palpable.

King went on television Tuesday evening, hanging tough but clearly wearied by the mounting attacks from within his own party. He told CNBC that anonymous Republicans in one Capitol Hill newsletter, Congress Daily, had threatened to make the next two years the "longest two years of my life." And plans are already being made to challenge King when he next runs for reelection in 2000. Jay Severin, who has offered his services to any King challenger, says, "Peter King should be impeached!"

Given the stiff rebuke the Republicans received at the polls last month, it may seem difficult to comprehend why they would willingly line up for impeachment once again only little more than a month later. But consultants and party regulars have been telling wavering moderates that despite the fact that two-thirds of the public opposes impeachment, the remaining one-third votes in disproportionately greater numbers. The zeal of the pro-impeachment forces, in other words, will make up for their relative lack of numbers. Of course, the only problem with this advice is that it is more or less the same reasoning that kept Republicans hammering away at Clinton in last month's election, which led to their drubbing. Some GOP moderates are starting to realize that whatever they do, Clinton will probably end up keeping his job, thanks to the Senate -- and maybe Saddam Hussein -- but they may not.

It may well be true that voters in swing districts will not be focusing on this impeachment vote when November 2000 rolls around. But the danger is really not so much that individual members will be punished. The threat for the Republicans is rather that by moving ahead with impeachment, a majority of voters in California, the Midwest and the Northeast may finally conclude that the Republican Party simply cannot be trusted to govern responsibly or remain sensitive to the wishes of the majority of the people.

The strike against Iraq has raised the stakes for both sides. Clinton could be vulnerable to perceptions that he used the crisis with Iraq to get him off the hook in the House, although prominent leaders in both parties -- including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich -- have disputed such claims. But if Republicans continue to move against a still-popular president during a military crisis, they risk a political backlash that voters will remember in November 2000.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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Bill Clinton Democratic Party Iraq Middle East Republican Party Tom Delay U.s. House Of Representatives