Still undecided on the 'I' word

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Congress-woman Marge Roukema was once an American history teacher, so she has future generations in mind as she wrestles with whether to vote to impeach President Clinton.

"History is going to judge us on the job we do," says the former New Jersey teacher and homemaker, now the longest-serving woman in the House. "This weighs very heavily on me," she says, recalling anxious questions from a group of high school students who recently stopped into her office.

With Republicans on the ideologically polarized House Judiciary Committee expected to approve at least one article of impeachment against Mr. Clinton by mid-December, attention is shifting to the full House - and especially to the harder-to-gauge attitudes of moderate, independent-minded Republicans like Representative Roukema.

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A handful of House GOP moderates - including Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Peter King and Jack Quinn of New York, and John Edward Porter of Illinois - have stated publicly they believe Clinton's alleged crimes in covering up his affair with Monica Lewinsky do not warrant his removal from office. Twenty to 40 of the current 228 House Republicans could oppose impeachment, Representatives Shays and King predict.

Still, scores of other Republicans such as Roukema - as well as some Democrats - are reserving judgment. Ultimately, their decisions could tilt the balance in either direction with decisive consequences for the impeachment endgame, including a possible role for the Senate and censuring the president.

"I am firmly planted in midair at the moment," says Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, expressing the state of limbo now felt by many Republicans contemplating the "I" word. A conservative Republican, Representative LaHood has nevertheless broken party ranks on some key votes.

Roukema also has a reputation for miffing the GOP leadership by speaking her mind and promoting abortion rights. Indeed, in 1997 she suggested that House Speaker Newt Gingrich temporarily step down and pay a fine out of his own pocket when under scrutiny for ethics violations.

A strong family advocate and mother of two grown children, Roukema considers her landmark legislation the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 - signed by Clinton. But this September, before the House voted to conduct an impeachment inquiry, Roukema urged Clinton to resign to "save his family the emotional trauma" and prevent "a constitutional crisis."

"I don't think anyone is above the law," Roukema says, taking a break from a morning of phone calls and errands at her home in Ridgewood, N.J.

Roukema shares the central considerations of many House GOP members as they ponder what may be the most historically significant vote of their careers.

One primary factor, members say, will be the wording of any articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee. "Perjury before a grand jury is a serious offense," says Roukema, adding she would not "shy away from" an impeachment vote if merited. "This is not about the president's private life."

Other factors include the arguments put forward by Judiciary Committee members, especially Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois. "I will be influenced by the committee's recommendation, but not necessarily bound by it," she says.

While stressing the legal and constitutional questions, Roukema and several Republicans downplay the importance of both national and local politics in their deliberations. "We have a constitutional obligation to conduct a full impeachment inquiry and should not short-circuit it for political considerations," she says.

For example, she and other GOP legislators voiced support for the hands-off approach to the impeachment issue taken by incoming House Speaker Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana. Unlike Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Livingston has publicly deferred to Mr. Hyde on impeachment, advising him only to "hurry up."

As for constituents, some GOP members agree that they may have alienated voters with their independent views. "We make no friends with this vote," says Shays. LaHood says more than 1,000 constituents have contacted him to call for Clinton's impeachment or resignation. But, he stresses, he will not base his decision on public opinion.

Some pundits interpret the unexpected loss of five seats by House Republicans in the Nov. 3 mid-term election as a backlash against the impeachment inquiry under way in the GOP-controlled Congress. But Roukema and others criticize Republicans who would drop the issue for purely political reasons. "I can't believe that this Congress wants to be seen as walking away from [impeachment] because the polls are against us," Roukema says.

Instead, the former secondary-school teacher maintains that she and her colleagues must judge themselves by how well they live up to their duty as defined in the textbooks of America's youths.

How Congress handles impeachment, she says, will have "a profound, long-standing effect on the qualities young people ascribe to public leaders - and themselves."

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