A lobbying onslaught over impeachment vote

As the US House steels itself for Thursday's solemn vote on impeachment, it's confronting more than material facts and scholarly debate.

It is also hearing from virtually every lobbyist in town - from unions to the religious right. Groups with a stake in the battle's ultimate outcome, whether commercial or ideological, are waging behind-the-scenes campaigns to influence the vote.

Some might judge such a lobby blitz unseemly. But the fight over President Clinton's future has become a firestorm, provoking conflict on many cultural, ideological, and legislative levels.

"We are calling every member of Congress," admits Deborah Dion, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO. She says her group joined the fight less on the principles involved and more on what would happen if a pro-union president were ousted.

"We are worried about what happens to issues like health care and Social Security if the House votes to impeach," Ms. Dion says. "The Senate would be tied up and there won't be any vote on the patients' bill of rights."

Washington is a city where lobbying reigns, says Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects at the Washington watchdog group Center for Public Integrity.

"So it doesn't surprise me there is lobbying on this." Still, he adds, "The lobbying on this issue involves much larger issues than just the simple issue of impeachment."

Some moderate congressional members say business lobbyists, at the behest of Clinton allies, are making friendly calls to point out how the impeachment process might damage the economy if a constitutional crisis lingers.

Anyone can be a lobbyist

Given the stakes, some believe anyone should feel free to speak up and let Congress know where they stand - whether it's a business group or a private citizen.

"The issue is so important it is perfectly appropriate to weigh in with strongly felt views," says Peter Shane, law professor and impeachment scholar at the University of Pittsburgh. "What's not appropriate is the kind of political lobbying you would accept with more routine legislation."

Organizations claiming to be less concerned about politics and more about the moral precedent the case may establish are also engaged in opinion-shaping.

The Christian Coalition is distributing petitions to members of Congress. It urges impeachment unless Mr. Clinton resigns. Randy Tate, the coalition's executive director, refuses to characterize the effort as lobbying, instead describing it as an informational effort.

"Our grass roots wanted an avenue, a mechanism to express their belief that the president has done wrong," Mr. Tate says. "Lobbying on this is like speeding up an avalanche."

Others claim more aggressive campaigning is under way. "We are aware that the religious right has mounted a massive phone-banking operation," says Nancy Coleman of the liberal advocacy group, People for the American Way (PAW). "That becomes a concern."

PAW was itself accused last week of being involved in a back-door effort to influence the impeachment process in the run-up to the November election.

An editorial in The American Enterprise reports PAW quietly purchased a $55,000 full-page ad in The New York Times featuring an admonition from the seemingly politically detached "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." The ad condemned the impeachment effort.

Ms. Coleman acknowledges that PAW served as an agent for the historians, but denies it paid for the ad.

Channeling grass-roots sentiment

Other organizations are seeking to channel grass-roots sentiment into a single lobbying block. The nonpartisan group moveon.org claims to have more than 300,000 petitions from people who want to see the president censured, then move on.

After providing a toll-free number last week that automatically patched callers through to the Capitol switchboard, the group claims more than 36,000 calls were made in the first 24 hours alone.

"It is appropriate and solemn to have this kind of lobbying effort take place," says Wes Boyd, moveon.org co-founder.

The White House has also begun its own lobbying effort. While it has not set up a formal "war room" - a command center where lobbying and media efforts are aggressively driven - it is publicly exploring how to most effectively influence the issue without triggering a backlash.

"This is unlike the usual legislative battle in which the White House is able to mount a wide-ranging effort to win votes," says White House spokesman Jim Kennedy.

When Clinton returns to Washington tomorrow, many believe he will begin reaching out, making one-on-one phone calls to lawmakers.

"He's in the fight of his political life," says Dan Rostenkowski, former Illinois representative.

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