What will tip impeachment vote

With House vote a tossup, members define debate in terms of what's best for the nation.

What's best for the country?

That's how both defenders and detractors of President Clinton are framing the debate as the House of Representatives forges ahead with a vote that could transform America's political landscape overnight.

On one side are those who see a vote for impeachment as a staunch defense of the nation's rule of law. On the other are members, mostly Democrats, who oppose impeachment, saying that to send this case to the Senate would dangerously lower the threshold for impeachment and gridlock government in an unseemly trial.

In between are 30 or so undecided lawmakers, just a handful of whom could tilt this week's vote. As House members consider four articles to impeach Clinton, several key factors could sway the vote:

* Lawmakers' views on impeachment. Most crucial is how each US representative will weigh the importance of impeachment, now that the House GOP leadership has all but removed censure as an option. Faced with an "impeachment or nothing" choice - and a distant likelihood of conviction in the Senate - members must decide whether stamping Clinton with impeachment is worse than the continued political turmoil that step would provoke.

One undecided Republican, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, underlined the starkness of the choices yesterday. Which is best, "to vote to condone his behavior or to send it to the Senate?" he asked.

* Clinton himself. Moderate Republicans want the president to admit to allegations that he lied under oath - which he so far has not done. Many were disappointed by his apology Friday, in which he expressed "profound remorse" and invited censure but admitted no legal wrongdoing.

"The White House is trying to run a strategy where they are contrite one minute and an attack dog the next," complained Rep. Scott Klug (R) of Wisconsin, another undecided GOP lawmaker.

* Public response. The vote could tilt depending on how forcefully the public rallies for or against impeachment. With the citizenry largely numbed by the whole issue, much will depend on how well pro- and anti-impeachment forces mobilize their grass roots. The vote is expected as early as Thursday on whether to impeach Clinton for perjury, obstructing justice, and abusing the power of his office.

Scenarios of the outcome

As the battle over impeachment spills out of the House Judiciary Committee and spreads nationwide, party lines are hardening over what will be the outcome of this political crisis.

Congressional Democrats and administration officials warn that impeaching Clinton would lower dangerously the bar for impeachment. A Senate trial would be a "national nightmare," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California. "It would divide the country [and] gridlock the government," said White House special counsel Gregory Craig.

Democrats seem to have lost their battle for a floor vote on a censure resolution that would rebuke Clinton for violating the public trust and dishonoring his office. Earlier, Democrats warned that denying such a vote would "be a partisan tactic to prevent us from voting our conscience," said Rep. Tom Barrett (D) of Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the White House appealed for backing from the public, which polls show opposes impeachment. Americans must "get engaged and be involved," said Mr. Craig. Unions and civil rights groups are at work to rally people against impeachment, Democrats say.

Yet many House Republicans, for their part, assert that failing to impeach Clinton would undermine the nation's rule of law. Clinton's actions marked an "assault" on the legal system, they argue. "Is the president one of us, or is he a sovereign?" asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde.

Censure, in contrast, is opposed by many Republicans, who say it would set a constitutionally questionable precedent that might be abused in partisan attacks on future presidents. "I am concerned we would see a stream of censures for policy decisions," said Mr. Hyde.

Speaker-elect Livingston over the weekend voiced his support for impeachment and said he would block a censure vote. Moreover, House Republican whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who many regard as the GOP point man on impeachment, vigorously opposes censure as "a terrible precedent" that would "undermine the separation of powers."

Lobbying in the extreme

Representative DeLay, the top GOP vote counter, strenuously denies that he is strong-arming wavering Republicans to line up behind a vote against Clinton.

Nevertheless, much like the Democrats, Republicans are supporting lobbying efforts by grass-roots groups. "This is probably the most important thing we've done," says Paul Weyrich of Coalitions for America, a conservative Washington lobby group. The coalition has mobilized as many as 600 conservative organizations to call a list of House members "who might be considered a problem" on impeachment, he says.

The Christian Coalition is flooding the Hill with petitions urging Clinton's impeachment. Another conservative group said it has faxed to at least 4,000 local activists nationwide the phone numbers of GOP House members who are undecided.

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