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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The big push to impeach

It's coming from Tom DeLay, the conservative House whip who is busy corralling the votes

By James Carney and John F. Dickerson

TIME magazine

If the House of Representatives votes to impeach Bill Clinton in the next few weeks, the man responsible will be someone whose face most Americans won't recognize and whose name they may never have heard. It won't be Ken Starr, the independent counsel who brought the Monica Lewinsky affair to the House of Representatives. Or Henry Hyde, the silver-haired chairman of the House committee where articles of impeachment originate. Or even Bob Livingston, who will soon replace Newt Gingrich as Speaker. Instead the author of Bill Clinton's most historic defeat, if it happens, will be Tom DeLay, a flinty former pest exterminator from Sugar Land, Texas, with a tense smile and a talent for making offers his fellow Republican lawmakers can't refuse.

For much of November, Republicans were looking everywhere for an impeachment escape hatch. The midterm elections had gone badly, and everyone blamed it on the party's obsession with ousting the President. Shut it down, said party elders; take Henry Hyde's gavel away and move on. In the House, G.O.P. members began discussing milder presidential punishments as if they were debating different models of a new car. Formulations like "censure," "censure plus," and "censure with teeth" came in and out of fashion. With Gingrich out, Hyde's committee in obvious disarray and Livingston showing no stomach for dealing with the impeachment mess, the troops had no leader to guide them. But before the agitated Republicans could flee the House in a stampede, DeLay, the third-ranking Republican and the man whose job it is to round up votes, started nailing the exits shut. The Constitution allows one option, he said: impeachment, up or down. Censure "means nothing." And voting to impeach Clinton for lying under oath, he insisted, is not a dangerous act because the Senate will never follow through and remove him from office.

Members listened. They had to. DeLay is not only the G.O.P.'s top vote counter but also the only sitting leader to emerge untouched by the election debacle and the Gingrich resignation it produced. In fact, he emerged with more power than ever, power he has amassed the old-fashioned way: by doling out favors and exacting revenge when crossed. Last week some Republicans who had been wavering on what to do about the President began stiffening their positions in favor of impeachment after conversations with DeLay or one of his lieutenants. And Livingston too, under pressure from DeLay, began sending signals that he was not inclined to let a censure alternative come to the House floor. DeLay predicted to TIME last week that if, as expected, the Judiciary Committee sends an impeachment resolution to the full House, the Speaker-elect will vote yes. "Knowing Bob Livingston," DeLay told TIME, "he will take the recommendation of the committee."

Suddenly, despite overwhelming public opposition, the chance that Bill Clinton will be impeached is rising. The President didn't help his case with the dismissive tone that ran through the answers he gave to 81 written questions submitted by committee Republicans. But it is true too that DeLay "has sharpened the issue," says Peter King of New York, the leading Republican proponent of censure. "Impeachment looked dead, but he is pushing it hard, and that guarantees a close vote."

DeLay was among the first members of Congress to call for the President's resignation after the Lewinsky scandal broke. But until the Nov. 3 midterm elections, he was seen as an outspoken conservative, not a spokesman for the whole party. Then came the post-Gingrich leadership shuffle. DeLay not only survived, he prospered. Facing no challenge for his job as majority whip, he was able to deploy his vote-counting network (the 64 lawmakers who serve as his assistant whips) behind three of the party's new leaders. One of them was Bob Livingston, who owed him a favor but who also did him one inadvertently by choosing not to step into the impeachment management. DeLay was only too happy to step in himself. "With Newt out and Livingston not sworn in yet, Tom is the de facto Speaker," says one of DeLay's deputies, Representative Mark Foley of Florida.

So last week DeLay organized four separate conference calls on Wednesday with his lieutenants and dozens of one-on-one calls with other Republicans scattered across the country. In them, the 14-year House veteran sampled opinion and, not so subtly, made his case. "What am I supposed to do, crawl into a hole and not do my job?" he asked TIME. To those worried that the party would be flouting the will of the public by voting to impeach, DeLay gave assurances. The G.O.P. has paid its price at the ballot box, he said, and lost in part because disaffected conservative voters stayed home. Those same voters would interpret backing down from impeachment now as the ultimate capitulation. "The 35% that is our hard-core base wants the process to go forward," insists a G.O.P. leadership aide. "We can't substitute censure for impeachment. They'd kill us."

Besides, the DeLay camp says, a vote to impeach the President is the perfect inoculation for moderate Republicans under assault from conservatives in their districts. Assuming, as almost everyone in Washington does, that Clinton would survive a Senate trial, moderates who voted to impeach wouldn't have to worry about a backlash. "What DeLay's been saying is, 'This vote isn't going to hurt you; it will mean conservatives won't bother you anymore,'" says a source close to the Texan. For some moderates, that could be an important consideration. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican known for her willingness to break with her more conservative colleagues, came close to losing her seat this year in a primary battle with a right-wing challenger. Last Tuesday she declared that she opposed censure--which she later called a "cop-out"--and was leaning toward impeachment. On Thursday, DeLay informed Livingston with near certainty that rumors that 15 to 20 Republicans are defecting to the anti-impeachment camp were "misinformation."

For the first time in weeks, the White House began picking up the scent of a possible defeat. Despite the embarrassing missteps of chairman Hyde--who reversed his widely panned decision to broaden the impeachment inquiry into campaign-finance abuses just two days after he got started--the week ended with the Clinton camp showing signs of desperation. In what might be an attempt to push the vote into next year--when five more Democrats enter the House--Clinton's lawyers demanded that they be given three extra days this week to call witnesses and argue the President's case in front of Hyde's committee. At the White House, optimism that the President will escape has almost disappeared. "I kept waiting for a moment when heroes would rise to the occasion, because it's such a unique moment in our history," says Leon Panetta, the former Clinton chief of staff who has been lobbying Democrats and Republicans to pass a bipartisan censure resolution. "That just has not happened, and I'm beginning to lose hope that it will."

There is one group holding out hope for a way out of impeachment: the mostly moderate Republicans led by New York's King. The dwindling band has drafted a resolution of censure that would require the President to pay a fine and publicly admit wrongdoing. They not only believe Clinton's alleged crimes do not merit impeachment; they also argue to their colleagues that if the House impeaches such a popular President, the Republicans might never recover politically.

But that argument doesn't count for much with the guy who counts at the moment, a politician who has thrived despite taking career-killing risks. In 1989 DeLay managed the campaign of Edward Madigan for the job of House Republican whip against an upstart rival named Newt Gingrich. Gingrich won by just two votes. Five years later, after the Republicans took over Congress, DeLay brazenly challenged and easily defeated Gingrich's handpicked candidate and best friend, Bob Walker, for the position he now holds. DeLay defended the Speaker during Gingrich's ethics investigation and helped him narrowly win re-election to his post in January 1997. But just six months later, DeLay tried to overthrow Gingrich in a coup attempt that, when it failed, seemed sure to end the Texan's stint in the leadership.

Instead Delay's frank admission of his role in the effort--delivered before the entire House Republican membership--earned him praise from fellow conservatives and moderates alike. DeLay's honesty was especially compelling when compared to the denials offered by other conspirators. "Whether you were on his side or not, you had to respect his courage," says Florida's Foley. "It was meant to be public humiliation, but he took it like a man, and his stature grew every day thereafter."

It helped that DeLay was considered one of the best vote counters Congress had ever seen. Being an effective whip means knowing intuitively in which direction every member is leaning on every critical vote--and what it will take to get their support. Sometimes courtliness is called for, other times thinly veiled threats. "I hope that I am seen more by my members as a whip who grows the vote rather than forces it," says DeLay. "I spend a lot of time talking to members and trying to take care of their problems." But DeLay adds, "Politics is about rewards and punishments, about consequences and cause and effect."

DeLay has a particular passion for making sure that Washington's business lobbyists, who grew accustomed to a culture in which Democrats controlled the House for 40 years, prove that they understand who is in charge now. Next to a Bible on his desk, DeLay keeps an up-to-date list of how much money each industry and interest group has contributed. He leaves it there as an implied threat to those who come calling. Such hardball tactics have earned him the nickname "the Hammer." Once when a Democratic lobbyist slapped DeLay on the back and suggested the two could do business, the whip shot back, "I don't get lobbied by Democrats. Tell your boss to send me a Republican."

In the aftermath of last month's elections, DeLay moved quickly to expand his influence and install a leadership team more beholden to him than any other member--including, perhaps, incoming Speaker Livingston. In exchange for supporting Livingston for the job, he got a larger budget for the whip's office, greater control over what issues come to a vote on the House floor and more responsibility for dealing with the party's friends in corporate America. He also helped install some of his allies in other leadership posts: he gave his tacit backing to J.C. Watts for conference chairman and helped put another colleague, Virginia's Tom Davis, into the job of congressional campaign committee chairman. That move was crucial because it gave Davis control of the money Congress hands out to prospective candidates, and there is no better way to build a power base.

DeLay's impeachment drive could lose steam if G.O.P. officials around the country make loud noises about how destructive this could be to the party, or if members are confronted in their home districts with new polls showing a public more adamant than ever about putting an end to the Beltway war. But DeLay and his conservatives are not listening to the polls. And even if he and his followers lose, there's a chance that the whip will emerge even stronger. That's the way it usually goes for the former exterminator from Texas.


Tom Delay

Born in Laredo, Texas, DeLay spent much of his childhood in Venezuela with his father, an oil-drilling contractor. After graduating from the University of Houston, DeLay ran a pest-control business and served in the Texas legislature from 1978 to 1984. In 1984 he easily won election to Congress and became a successful pork-barrel politician. In 1994 he beat Newt Gingrich's closest ally for the job of whip. Famous for his anti-regulatory zeal, he has likened the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo.

How the GOP Is divided

"Hang him high" caucus

Southern and Mountain state conservatives like Georgia's Bob Barr have no qualms about impeachment. Barr began calling for Clinton's removal long before the Lewinsky scandal broke. By far the largest, this caucus boasts more than 100 members.

"Censure with teeth" caucus

Two weeks ago, New York's Peter King thought he had 35 to 40 potential Republican supporters for censure, almost all of them moderates. Now he's claiming just 15 to 20, a number whip Tom DeLay insists is exaggerated.

"Hold your powder" caucus

Maryland's Connie Morella is one of scores of Republicans waiting as long as they can before deciding how to vote. Some may oppose impeachment but are keeping quiet to avoid attacks from conservatives. Others will vote no only if censure is put forth as an alternative.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: December 14, 1998

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