Democrats struggle with impeachment inquiry vote
Vote is set for Thursday; White House downplays its lobbying efforts
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, October 7) -- On the eve of Thursday's floor debate and vote, House Democrats vulnerable in next month's elections are struggling to decide whether to join the Republican majority in launching a formal impeachment investigation of President Bill Clinton.
The Democrats, unhappy with the White House's anti-impeachment strategy and searching for cover on the issue, suggested the president make a public statement giving them more political leeway to vote Thursday in favor of the impeachment inquiry, CNN has learned.
Even after the president said Wednesday morning that lawmakers should vote on "principle" and "conscience," Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Vic Fazio (D-California) came to the White House to criticize the president's strategy and ask for a more direct statement giving Democrats a "pass" to vote in favor of the inquiry.
The White House is worried about a large Democratic defection, since the fewer Democratic votes the easier it will be for the White House to cast the inquiry as politically motivated.
Even so, Clinton said earlier in the day during a photo opportunity with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban: "I think everybody should cast a vote of principle and conscience."
But what's best for the president isn't necessarily best for House Democrats up for re-election next month. The question for them is to figure out whether 'yea' or 'nay' does the most damage.
Some House Democrats have complained of White House pressure on them to vote against an inquiry, calling the effort to save the president's job selfish.
Other lawmakers took offense at the tactic as well. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) said on the Senate floor Wednesday, 'I would suggest by way of friendly advice to the White House: Don't tamper with this jury. Don't tamper with this jury." It is the Senate that would act as judge if the House approves articles of impeachment.
Following his meeting with Clinton, Fazio publicly downplayed the tensions, telling reporters there was "no arm-twisting going on" on behalf of the White House to convince members to vote against the inquiry. "I don't think the president or anyone else is spending a lot of time or political capital wrestling people on this issue," Fazio said.
Fazio said he would not back the GOP-led inquiry, but he believed some Democrats would vote for the presidential probe because of a "strong personal view ... that it's the right thing for them to do."
In all, experts figure there is a universe of up to 100 Democrats who might vote in favor of the Republican resolution to launch an impeachment inquiry, although most put the estimate around 50.
Who are the potential defectors? There are 25 or so Democrats considered most in danger of losing their seat next month. Add to them another 24 Blue Dog Democrats -- moderate Southerners -- and an unknown number of Democrats who are personally offended by Clinton's behavior and those angered at what they see as unseemly White House lobbying.
Both the president and White House officials have been trying to downplay the scope and intensity of the president's lobbying of House Democrats in advance of Thursday's vote.
Clinton said he doubts members of his staff have been pressuring Democrats to vote against the Republican proposal for a unlimited impeachment inquiry.
Press Secretary Joe Lockhart acknowledged the White House cannot "impose our will" and demand Democratic loyalty.
Lockhart said the president had spoken to perhaps six or eight Democratic House members in recent days, and Vice President Al Gore had spoken to a dozen or so over the past two weeks.
Lockhart said he was not aware of how many lawmakers first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken to, but sources tell CNN she was calling House Democrats as recently as Wednesday, urging Democrats to vote against an impeachment inquiry and labeling the investigation as a right-wing vendetta against the president.
Several sources familiar with the president's calls said he was not directly framing the vote as a test of loyalty to him. But they said he was rattling off poll findings suggesting the American people do not favor an impeachment inquiry and that Democrats who stand by the president will not suffer.
Lockhart suggested the administration effort was low key. "For those who think there is a vast aggressive lobbying effort, those people are wrong," Lockhart said. "We don't presume to have control ... let members vote their conscience."
Clinton comments on possible inquiry
In regard to a Democratic proposal that would limit the length and scope of a presidential investigation, Clinton said, "As far as I know no one in the White House had anything to do with the development of the proposal. There have been conversations with members ... a large number have called me."
But Clinton used the forum Wednesday morning to take his message back to his most supportive audience thus far.
"What happens to me, I think, ultimately will be for the American people to decide," Clinton said. "I owe them my best efforts to work for them and that is what I'm going to do."
House Democrats urged the White House to back off following complaints from several Democrats at a party caucus Wednesday that they felt pressured by the White House.
CNN has learned that the issue came up during a Wednesday morning meeting between House Democratic freshmen and the first lady.
Democrats at the meeting said it would be helpful for the White House to make clear that it viewed an inquiry as inevitable and it was fruitless to worry about the number of Democrats who voted with the Republicans.
Sources tell CNN Mrs. Clinton responded by saying that members should vote as they see fit but that the White House considered the Republican impeachment proposal unfair and part of a coordinated political strategy designed to hurt and embarrass the president.
This sentiment was also relayed on Capitol Hill to White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and his deputy, John Podesta, who are coordinating the White House lobbying and vote-counting effort.
Later, administration sources told CNN, Clinton spoke with House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (R-Missouri) to get an assessment of the mood among Democrats. The administration officials declined to discuss specifics of the conversation.
At the House Democratic caucus meeting Tuesday, several members complained about White House pressure to vote against an inquiry, congressional sources said.
Clinton was briefed by Bowles and Podesta about the administration's lobbying and vote count among House Democrats, administration sources report.
These sources said the White House estimates between 40 and 60 Democrats will vote in favor of the Republican resolution Thursday.
There are 228 Republicans and 206 Democrats and one independent in the House of Representatives.
On Monday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 21-16 strictly along party lines to send the full House a Republican proposal for a free-ranging probe that could extend beyond Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report on the Monica Lewinsky matter and would have no deadline for completion.
House Democrats met again Wednesday to continue debate on options to the Republican resolution.
On Monday the Judiciary Committee voted down two Democratic alternative resolutions that would have limited the length and scope of an inquiry to the perjury and obstruction of justice allegations involved with Clinton's attempts to hide his sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
Thursday's vote is critical, a Democratic women's activist group suggests, saying the findings of a survey suggest the impeachment inquiry could play a key role in the November congressional elections.
The poll, conducted for the group "Emily's List," found many people linking their voting decisions to whether Congress brings an early end to the presidential probe.
Given a choice between a Republican candidate who supports an open-ended inquiry, versus a Democrat voting for a 30-day inquiry, those polled favored the Democrat by 18 points. Pollsters said it seems to be the only message that puts Democrats ahead with both men and women.
The survey found strong support for a 30-day limit among women voters surveyed across the country. By region, the "censure and close" option drew more than 60 percent support in the Northeast, Central and South, and 56 percent of women voters in the West.
The poll found an eight-point advantage for Republicans when those polled were asked to consider the Clinton controversy and the Starr report. That advantage vanished, and became a three-point lead for Democrats when the same people were asked to consider how Congress is handling the report.
The poll of 1,110 men and women registered voters has a margin of error is +/- 3 percentage points among all respondents, and +/- 4 percentage points among women surveyed.
CNN's John King contributed to this report.
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