Washington — After several months in which Edwin Meese III appeared on the edge of unemployment, the attorney general is taking the offensive in his bid to keep his job. Today Mr. Meese is scheduled to present his case to conservative Republicans in the House. At the meeting, which Meese requested last week, he will lay out for the first time, according to one source, a detailed rebuttal of allegations made against him by the chairman of a Senate subcommittee earlier this month.
The meeting with the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of about two dozen congressmen, comes a week after a similar talk with Republican senators, which Meese also sought. Unlike the Senate briefing, in which the possibility of resignation was discussed in general terms, Meese is giving House members precise ammunition to shoot down allegations that he has engaged in illegal or unethical behavior.
``The feeling is, there are two ways to approach the problem: Take the high road and be above it all, or fight back,'' says Patrick McGuigan, a senior scholar at the conservative Free Congress Foundation. ``He's going to fight back.''
Meese has scored some recent victories in the White House and within the conservative camp in general, which as recently as last week seemed on the verge of withdrawing support from him. His ability to ride out the crises of the last few months is leading both supporters and critics to say that Meese will leave office at the time of his or President Reagan's choosing, and not a moment before.
The basis of today's meeting with Republican congressmen is a memo prepared by Meese's lawyers and sent last Wednesday to Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
The 18-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Monitor, rebuts a report issued by Mr. Levin's office May 4 which charged that Meese, when he was a White House counselor, had improper contacts with government officials to help the Wedtech Corporation win a government contract.
The memo by Meese's lawyers states that the Senate report is ``seriously wrong ... and a fair and complete review of the record leads to the conclusions that Meese did not violate White House policy. ...'' It then states why the contacts with procurement officials were not improper; that Meese's involvement was ``minimal''; and that Meese did not ignore legal advice not to intervene, as the Senate report states, but was unaware of such advice.
Meese's appeal to congressional Republicans, both last week and today, is viewed as a move to galvanize support among erstwhile supporters, who have increasingly seen the attorney general as a liability for both the President and presidential hopeful George Bush. Notes Rep. Donald Lukens (R) of Ohio, who planned to attend the meeting, ``Some individual members would like specifics, including me.''
``Specifics are always helpful,'' says Meese's new chief spokesman, Patrick Korten. ``In the absence of details from us, [legislators] are forced to rely upon what they read in the papers, and that may not be very favorable.''
The meeting is ``crucial'' to Meese's status on the Hill, a Republican House aide says. ``Clearly the congressmen will be measuring his responses'' to their questions, he says, ``and then they'll decide whether they want to continue to walk the plank for Meese.''
The Meese offensive comes nine days after the attorney general committed what many critics, including some conservatives, view as his biggest blunder yet. Last week he fired his public affairs director, Terry Eastland, reportedly because Mr. Eastland had not defended the attorney general aggressively enough. Meese disputes that account.
Conservatives, who had considered Mr. Eastland an effective spokesman for the Reagan judicial agenda, were outraged, and many criticized Meese's decision.
After the dust settled, some conservatives began to see the firing not as a blunder but a signal that Meese is here to stay. ``If Ed Meese is going to resign, then there's no need to dismiss Terry,'' one administration official notes. ``He's bringing up his best troops for the big battle.''
That battle will begin anew when the independent counsel who has been investigating Meese for the last year issues his report within the next few weeks. The report is not expected to accuse Meese of any illegal acts. If it is critical of Meese's ethics, however, as some expect, it will likely spark new calls for his resignation.
A few days after the report is issued, the battle will heat up again when two top Justice Department officials who resigned in March will testify before the Senate on their reasons for quitting.
Over the last few weeks, the attorney general may have snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. He has received grudging support among moderates in the White House, and more vocal support among conservatives in general. If Meese can successfully woo congressional Republicans, he may have won over the last constituency that could persuade the President to ask for his resignation.
Even the Eastland dismissal contained a silver lining for Meese. Many conservatives were sobered by the attention that their criticisms of Meese received in the press last week.
Now they are portraying the firing as a ``family squabble,'' and over the last week have rallied around the attorney general. Last Wednesday, for example, the board of directors at the American Conservative Union voted ``without dissent to urge the attorney general to stay on and fight,'' executive director Daniel L. Casey says. Other events are being scheduled as a direct ``show of support'' for Meese, Louis Cordia at the conservative Heritage Foundation says. ``There's a backlash against the backlash'' against Meese, says Mr. Casey. He adds that the press, including recent columns in the Washington Post, is beginning to pick up the President's oft-heard refrain that Meese should be held innocent until proven guilty.
Most acknowledge that the attorney general is not home free. There is still a ``short list'' of names of possible replacements for Meese, including Illinois Gov. James Thompson, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Rudolph Giuliani, the US attorney in New York City.
But the most important Meese advocate shows no signs of wavering. The President appears to be determined that Meese not repeat the experience of former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan, who left office when he was under indictment. After he was acquitted, Mr. Donovan asked, ``Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?''
Unless the President is convinced that his attorney general and friend of 21 years has committed a crime, Edwin Meese is likely to remain in office as long as he chooses.