In House, votes are not there

Republicans not on Judiciary Committee intensify search for an 'exit strategy.'

As the machinery of presidential impeachment grinds on, the process itself is losing momentum.

The political math tells the story: In growing numbers, House Republicans are speaking out against forcing President Clinton from office over the Monica Lewinsky matter.

At least five House GOP members have stately publicly they wouldn't vote to impeach. About 12 to 20 more hold the same view, according to GOP sources.

Because the Republicans control Congress by only an 11-seat margin, it wouldn't take too many party members to vote "no" to squelch the impeachment drive. Few Democrats are expected to defect and support impeachment.

But there are many caveats. Within the House Judiciary Committee, the panel that must approve any articles of impeachment the House would vote on, Republican sentiment in favor of impeachment has only grown. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's testimony last week provided a compelling picture of presidential lying under oath, while no Democrats - including the president's own lawyer, David Kendall - have challenged Mr. Starr's facts, GOP committee members say.

In addition, testimony from other witnesses continues today - and with it, the possibility that some bombshell revelation could change the entire landscape.

But for now, the drumbeat for an appropriate "exit strategy" is growing daily among House Republicans outside the Judiciary Committee. "We should start the next Congress with a clean slate," says Rep. John Edward Porter (R) of Illinois, a non-committeeman who opposes impeachment and wants Congress to censure Mr. Clinton.

GOP analysts say Starr's testimony did not measurably strengthen public support for impeachment. They "do not see a consensus forming that perjury and obstruction of justice are impeachable offenses," says Bobby Burchfield, former general counsel for the reelection campaign of President Bush. "The biggest hurdle now is to come forward with something, frankly, new and unexpected."

House committee testimony continues today in a closed-door session. First to appear is Daniel Gecker, attorney for Kathleen Willey, the former White House volunteer who alleges Clinton groped her. Tomorrow, the committee will hear privately from Nathan Landow, a Democratic fund-raiser who allegedly had discussed with Ms. Willey her testimony in the Paula Jones case. The week following Thanksgiving, the committee will hear privately from Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett and top presidential aide Bruce Lindsey.

In separate developments that could affect the atmosphere around the Lewinsky matter, Attorney General Janet Reno must make three decisions on ethical questions involving the Clinton administration. By tomorrow, she must decide whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether Vice President Gore lied about fund-raising practices in the 1996 campaign. On Nov. 30, Ms. Reno will announce how she is proceeding in a possible perjury case involving former White House aide Harold Ickes. On Dec. 7, she will decide how to proceed regarding Clinton's own 1996 election practices.

In the House impeachment process, members are battling with competing impulses of wanting to finish their business by the end of the year and making sure justice is served. Thus the search for a tidy ending to a messy process. Though House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois has rejected the idea of censure, some House Republicans still see it as a possible outcome.

Conservative House Republican David McIntosh (R) of Indiana, not a Judiciary Committee member, has floated the idea of impeaching and convicting the president, but allowing him to finish his term on the condition that he be barred from holding public office again. But within the committee, the desire to proceed with the process at hand is strong. "I think that unless the president offers testimony to rebut the charges it would not surprise me to see the Judiciary Committee vote on one or more articles," says Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas.

The direction and scope of the hearings from this point will be a crucial first test for incoming House Speaker Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana. Speaking yesterday, Rep. Livingston said he is waiting on Hyde to finish his work.

But Livingston also made it clear that he is eager to see it wrapped up this year. "I would hope Newt would bring us into a special session, hold three or four hours of debate, and vote it up or down," he says. "If we did not have the votes, that would be it."

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