Why Clinton Could Still Dodge Impeachment

There may be no such thing as a free lunch. But in Washington, there is a long tradition of the free vote. And that, more than anything else, explains why the same Bill Clinton who cheered the GOP's Nov. 3 comeuppance at the polls is now hanging by his fingernails in a bid to stave off impeachment by the House of Representatives.

House members often vote for controversial measures mindful that a more temperate Senate will let them off the hook. That dynamic is at work in the Republican drive to punish Clinton for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. With the House Judiciary Committee poised to urge impeachment, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is telling some GOP centrists that a vote to impeach is a freebie because the Senate is unlikely to muster the 67 votes needed to remove Clinton. "This," declares GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, "is a free vote."

DeLay is wooing two dozen fence-straddling moderates by arguing that an impeachment vote is a symbolic form of censure. The wavering pols fear that voting to spare Clinton will provoke retaliation from the right wing. DeLay's sales job has been made easier by anger over the President's evasive answers to the 81 questions submitted by the Judiciary Committee. If DeLay prevails, Clinton will join Andrew Johnson in the elite club of impeached Presidents.

"ANCIENT HISTORY." But enticing as this zipless impeachment scenario is, it will not be cost-free. A Dec. 4-6 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 66% of Americans want their representative to oppose impeachment. White House strategists contend that any Republican from a competitive district who casts a vote for impeachment will face a backlash from suburban independents.

Republicans risk "flying in the face of public opinion," frets GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio. "We're talking about things that nobody cares about, while [Democrats] are talking about things that are important to the country." Democratic lobbyist Werner W. Brandt adds that Republicans "risk being stuck with this, just as they were stuck with being the party that shut down the government" in 1995-96. Even outgoing Republican Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, who knows something about the dangers of attacking the Clintons, warned on Dec. 8 that impeachment would only harm the American people. "A lot of members feel trapped," says GOP lobbyist Mark W. Isakowitz. "Republicans don't want to be defined by this." But some Democrats think worries about the next election are a stretch. "By November 2000, whatever is happening now is going to be ancient history," says Democratic consultant Brian Lunde.

ESCAPE PLAN. Still, any hopes for bipartisan deals on Social Security, trade, and health care could vanish if the House tosses the impeachment hot potato to the Senate for a trial. "That will be the end of Social Security reform," warns Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Many GOP centrists are still hoping that Clinton, master of the 11th-hour maneuver, gives them a way out. For days, the White House has been dangling hints of a deal, floating ideas such as a stiff fine and another personal expression of contrition by the President. Republicans want more: an outright admission of perjury. But Clinton has been unwilling to make any gesture that opens him up to the threat of future criminal prosecution.

If nobody blinks, Bill Clinton could see his legacy forever tarnished. And Republicans could discover that "free" votes sometimes carry a steep cost.