A Wary Dance on Capitol Hill

With Kenneth Starr's report imminent, parties are trying to decide how best to deal with its contents, and each other.

Call it the dance of the parties. With independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the president's transgressions due on Capitol Hill any day, Democrats and Republicans are edging warily around each other, unsure how to proceed.

Democratic lawmakers are increasingly worried that President Clinton's troubles will hurt them in November's elections. Some have begun to openly criticize the president, in part because they want to protect themselves against the coming report's impact.

Republicans have been cautious about going on the attack. They don't want to seem too partisan - and Mr. Clinton's own party is prodding him enough as it is.

Most sense the developing seriousness of the situation. Impeachment hearings have become a distinct possibility - though such hearings would be a long step away from presidential impeachment itself.

When the machinery of the Constitution creaks into motion, like the works of a giant, historic clock, even the most voluble of politicians can grow silent.

"I don't think either party has a very good read on the consequences of this," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist and congressional expert at the University of California at San Diego. "Both are being cautious."

In a meeting that could be critical to his future, President Clinton reached out to House Democrats on Sept. 8. He expressed deep sorrow for all the trouble he has caused by his actions, said a participant.

"What we saw was a father, a husband, the leader of our country who was contrite, who was very sorry for his actions," said Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, second-ranking Democrat in the House.

Representative Bonior said that the Democrats who took part in the meeting agreed to forgive Clinton for what he had done.

Meanwhile, Mr. Starr appeared close to wrapping up his report. Delivery to the House of Representatives could come before the end of the week.

Top House leaders of both parties met yesterday to discuss what their response should be. In essence, they agreed on how to begin writing rules for handling Starr's report. They did not appear to agree as to whether the actual process of impeachment would then begin.

All pledged to try and keep whatever happens nonpartisan.

"Next to declaring war, this may be the most important thing we do, so we have to do it right," said House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri at a joint news conference yesterday.

Despite the solemnity of the week on Capitol Hill, some experts still judge the odds of presidential impeachment at below 50 percent.

"Democratic leaders are qualifying their statements about the president, and opening the door to [impeachment] proceedings," says Christopher Deering, an expert on the behavior of Congress at George Washington University here. "But opening the door and actually impeaching the president are two different things."

Clinton's developing political problem, however, has been an erosion of Democratic support. Since Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut denounced the president's behavior on the Senate floor last week, a number of other prominent figures in Clinton's own party have publicly expressed similar sentiments.

These Democrats' motives may not all be the same. Senator Lieberman, a longtime friend of Clinton, advocated censure of the president - a move that could be seen as an effort to try and head off impeachment proceedings. Others, such as Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, advocated that the process of impeachment proceed. All appeared worried about the effect of the scandal on their party in November.

"You've got a lot of Democrats up for reelection. They need some kind of cover, since they don't know what the full impact of the Starr report will be," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "They want to be on record saying something critical, in case the report turns out to be horrible."

Voter polls have shown that the Lewinsky matter is indeed beginning to drag Democrats' chances down.

One closely watched pre-election measure, the Battleground survey conducted by a group of pollsters of both parties, concluded that energized Republicans will deliver more key swing races to the GOP this fall. Congressional Republicans now enjoy a seven-point lead over Democrats on the question of which party comes closest to sharing respondents' own values, according to the Battleground results released Tuesday.

"That being the case, the impact of the Clinton scandal will ultimately be felt at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue on Election Day," wrote GOP pollster Ed Goeas, a Battleground participant.

The survey found that Clinton's personal approval rating has dropped considerably, to 26 percent. That's down from 45 percent in January, before the Lewinsky matter broke.

Clinton's job approval rating, however, remained at 56 percent, down from the mid-60s before the president's televised admission of an affair on Aug. 17.

Considering the turmoil on the Democratic side, Republicans do not have to be in any hurry to pile on the White House in a race for partisan advantage. They look more statesmanlike by remaining silent.

It is an old axiom of elections: When the other guys are damaging themselves, just get out of the way.

"When the other people shut up - that's when you really have to start worrying in politics," says political scientist James Pfiffner of George Mason University.

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