Off the cliff?

The White House tries lobbying, "scorched-earth" threats and one more speech to sway fence-sitting Republicans.

Published December 11, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

In the midst of the impeachment hearings, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., gazed across the House Judiciary Committee and spoke to the "21 or so moderate members" of the House who were not in the room, but who will determine whether President Clinton faces impeachment when the House votes as scheduled next week. The hearings had been all about points of law and points of Monica Lewinsky's body, but Conyers wanted to talk religion.

"Perhaps it will take an epiphany so we don't go off a cliff," the liberal Democrat from Detroit and ranking minority member said in his pleading, plaintive tones. "Is that too optimistic?"

But as the week of hearings came to a blessed end and President Clinton once again tried to mollify his critics with a brief speech to the nation Friday afternoon, religious awakenings were not on the minds of political operatives in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Nor were points of law and definitions of perjury.

"Law has very little to do with this now," said a White House aide. "We're running a boiler room, trying to get votes."

The battle was not for votes among the 37 members of the House Judiciary Committee. Long before the four days of hearings, it was clear that the 21 Republicans on the committee would vote in favor of articles of impeachment, and the 16 Democrats would vote against them. Clinton knew that. He spoke for a few minutes just after 4 p.m. in the Rose Garden; minutes later the Judiciary Committee started churning out articles of impeachment on party line votes.

It was no surprise that the president's quickie speech would have little impact on the Judiciary Committee, but his words seemed to fall flat across Capitol Hill. Before the president decided to address the nation for the second time about his dalliance with Lewinsky and the ensuing scandal, there was tension and disagreement throughout Washington about what he needed to do. When he announced his fairly impromptu speech, no one knew what he would say: Would he admit to lying to his wife, to his friends, to his aides, to the nation? Would he admit to perjury, as the Republicans seemed to want? Would he beg for forgiveness?

None of the above. Clinton used his precious moment to say he was "profoundly sorry for all I have done in words and deeds" and said he could accept "rebuke and censure."

Unfortunately, the issue at hand is impeachment, and from all indications he failed to sway the crucial moderate Republicans.

Aides said Clinton was trying to get through to the American people and sway Congress through public opinion polls. But the polls are already solidly in Clinton's favor, so that strategy seems doomed to fail.

This struggle for votes has shaped up to be a battle between the White House and Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, an implacable Clinton hater. Incoming Majority Leader Robert Livingston of Louisiana, who will take over from Newt Gingrich in January, has taken himself out of the fray -- for now.

"DeLay is acting as speaker at the pleasure of Livingston," says a Democratic House member. "He's hiding behind DeLay."

At week's end, vote counters in DeLay's office and the White House basement were trying to finger 10 or more moderate Republicans. Among them were Constance Morella from Maryland; New Yorkers Benjamin Gilman, Sherwood Boehlert and Rick Lazio; Nancy Johnson from Connecticut; John Porter and Ray LaHood from Illinois; Jim Leach from Iowa; Minnesota's Jim Ramstead and Deborah Price from Ohio.

"That pool's in play," says one of Clinton's aides.

The balance of power shifts almost hourly. Thursday, Clinton was said to need only five more votes, and the likely candidates included Morella, Gilman, Boehlert, Johnson, Porter and Lazio. But on Friday the White House was working hard on as many as 20 members, with no one sure of the accurate vote count for and against the president. Political operatives on Capitol Hill and at the White House predicted the impeachment vote could hang on one or two votes. "And we're not going to know until the actual vote," said a White House aide.

DeLay, a gritty political enforcer, controls Republican campaign funds, and he was prepared to use them to convince undecided members to vote for impeachment. His ties to the Christian Coalition could also be brought to bear on reluctant moderates.

By late Friday DeLay had yet to make contact with Morella, who represents the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Md., where liberal Democrats have voted her into office time after time. But former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro had been playing phone tag with Morella for a few days.

"My guess is that Gerry Ferraro is calling on behalf of the White House," said Morella's press secretary, Mary Anne Leary. Calls to Morella's office were running 3-2 against impeachment, but Leary said Morella wouldn't make up her mind until the day of the vote.

Besides calls from Ferraro and other former congressmen or business and union leaders, the White House actually has few political tools to twist Republican arms.

"It's hard to shower Democratic campaign funds on members of the GOP," says a House aide. "And a new post office looks too much like a straight bribe."

There are trips with the president. Clinton has invited Lazio and a few other Republicans to accompany him to the Middle East this weekend. And as the day of the impeachment vote neared, some in the White House started to resort to the "scorched-earth" tactics of seeding the media with compromising stories about top Republicans, such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and chief counsel David Schippers. But the media didn't seem to be taking.

Then there are public opinion polls, where the Republicans continue to take a beating. But those polls seem not to be swaying Republicans, who have almost two years before they have to face voters again.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is still the White House's best weapon. Her popularity is much higher than the president's. Her photograph is about to grace the cover of Time as Woman of the Year. As her husband delivered his last-ditch speech, and the Judiciary Committee started to vote out articles of impeachment, the first lady was in California to give a few speeches and fetch daughter Chelsea for this weekend's trip to the Middle East.

Aides refuse to comment, but it's safe to say that when Hillary Clinton returns to town on Tuesday, she'll be working the Hill hard to keep her man from being tossed out of the White House.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton John Conyers D-mich. Newt Gingrich