Both parties feel the heat of scandal

The conflagration of impeachment is threatening to consume both the great political parties that govern America.

As Democrats have seen their leader accused of high crimes and misdemeanors by the US House, so have Republicans watched aghast as their first Speaker in decades, and then his expected replacement, have toppled from their positions.

While it's the Democrats whose leader faces the highest degree of jeopardy, the GOP is also facing a great risk to its national standing.

Republican elders are split on the impeachment effort, and party poll ratings are the lowest they've been in 14 years.

It's become the scandal in which no one, or at least no one's reputation, survives. Few in Washington have any real idea which party will emerge stronger.

"A disaster movie scripted by the Marx Brothers," opined the tart-tongued Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts Saturday.

The effect of the stunning resignation of presumptive Speaker Rep. Robert Livingston of Louisiana, announced in the midst of Saturday's impeachment debate, is difficult to predict.

On the one hand, the move may well add weight to Republican calls for Clinton's resignation. Representative Livingston is willing to take responsibility for his actions and do what is best for his family, goes this theory. The president should similarly act like an adult, say Republicans.

Nor are the charges against the two men morally equivalent, insist GOP members. Livingston's admitted extramarital affairs were entirely private; Clinton lied about his actions under oath, and thus committed a public offense.

On the other hand, the thunderbolt timing of Livingston's announcement only added to the perception that the impeachment drive is out of control. It allowed Democrats to take a high-road approach of begging Livingston not to resign - and saying Clinton shouldn't have to, either.

Life in the House

Privately, many in the GOP are angry with Livingston for giving the other side another way to distract the public from Clinton's conduct. Livingston campaigned for Speaker without telling colleagues of his past; when it became public last week, some conservatives turned against him and called for him to step down.

Whatever happens, Livingston's fate illustrates how brutal life in the House has become. Of the last four Speakers of the House, only one - Rep. Tip O'Neill (D) of Massachusetts - has retired voluntarily. One, Rep. Tom Foley (D) of Washington, was deposed when his party lost control of the chamber. Rep. Jim Wright (D) of Texas was forced out by accusations he had skirted limits on outside income, while Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia was ousted by his own party after November's poor election showing.

Representative Gingrich now says his party needs a "listener," someone who will quietly bring together the various House GOP factions as they ready for what promises to be an extraordinarily important election in 2000.

The vote will be key because control of the House and Senate will be much more of an issue than in 1998. Democrats have edged close enough to have reasonable visions of recapturing the House. The pattern of Senate seats up for election puts more Republicans at risk, and thus the senior chamber could conceivably flip back to the GOP as well.

Livingston's replacement

Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois has quickly emerged as the front-runner to replace Livingston. Representative Hastert is a former high school government teacher respected for his ability to reach out and communicate across the ideological divide that now separates the Republican right wing and moderate wing.

His path to the Speaker's chair may not be unimpeded. Rep. Christopher Cox (R) of California is reportedly considering a run. But Hastert already has the support of his party's third in command, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. That support may make him virtually unbeatable.

As Speaker, Hastert would face repair work. The drive to impeach has lowered Republican Party approval ratings to their lowest level since 1984. About 40 percent of respondents had a positive view of the GOP in a recent New York Times/CBS poll.

The image that takes hold in the public's mind over the next two years will be crucial. Will it be the Democrats' version - that the Republicans are a group of out-of-control extremists bent on political revenge? Or will it be the Republicans' own - that they are bravely putting principle above polls and doing the best thing for the nation?

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