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GOP push for impeachment holds risks for 2000 election

But worry about a backlash doesn't deter those who see the vote as one of conscience.

Facing the risk that impeaching President Clinton could provoke a political backlash against the GOP in 2000, House Republican leaders are all but shrugging their shoulders.

"I don't really care," declared House majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the GOP leadership's most ardent advocate of forging ahead on impeachment. "This is too important to worry about politics and polls."

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Absent a hoped-for ground-swell of public support for impeachment, House Republicans like Mr. DeLay are seeking to stake out the moral high ground by vowing to uphold the Constitution and let the political chips fall where they may.

It's a bold gamble - one that is alarming some Republican governors and party operatives while secretly thrilling some Democrats.

"Some people think that moving forward with impeachment now is doing irreparable damage to the Republican Party," says GOP strategist Ed Gillespie. "Party operatives and elected [House] officials are split on this."

A GOP source put it more bluntly: "If they were politically smart, they would have given him censure three weeks ago and walked away from this."

Indeed, not only do two-thirds of Americans oppose impeachment, but a similar percentage disapprove of how Republicans in Congress have handled the impeachment process, recent polls show. Ironically, most Americans also think that despite Republicans' claims to the contrary, GOP lawmakers are politically driven to impeach.

GOP has time on its side?

Yet other GOP insiders argue that the Republican position is not nearly as self-destructive as it may seem.

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First, they point out, the next presidential election is still nearly two years off - plenty of time for the American public and media to forget about impeachment. Voters will judge the Republican Party more by whom it chooses as its standard-bearer in 2000 than by what members of the House Judiciary Committee did in 1998, they contend.

Moreover, while the majority of Americans do not favor impeaching Mr. Clinton, the GOP's political base of conservative activists strongly supports it. For example, in the flurry of thousands of phone calls and e-mails received by the Republican National Committee in recent days, 2 out of 3 people called for impeachment, says RNC spokesman Mike Collins.

Pro-impeachment calls to the offices of House GOP members "are much more intense," Mr. Collins says, adding that the lawmakers' backing for impeachment has hardened as a result of "the president's obstinate refusal to accept any responsibility."

Safety of home districts

As a result, members elected from solidly conservative districts have less to fear in voting for impeachment. These include most Republicans on the politically polarized House Judiciary Committee, which voted last week to send four articles of impeachment to the full House.

Also among them is DeLay, who comes from the booming, staunchly Republican Houston suburb of Sugar Land.

Indeed, some analysts say that lawmakers like DeLay would suffer more if they are seen as caving in to popular opinion and backing away from impeachment.

"The party will be far worse off if the perception is that out of political considerations they abandoned the impeachment pro-cess," says Mr. Gillespie, "than if they move forward based on principle."

Another motivating factor for DeLay and other conservatives, underpinning all the grave pledges to defend the Constitution, is a deep-seated mistrust of Clinton. For four years, Clinton has "either lied or broken his word to me," complained Texas' DeLay, who is increasingly seen as a figure to reckon with in the House, during a recent television interview.

"I am suggesting that the president of the United States cannot be believed," he said. Earlier, he skewered the White House's denials of Clinton's alleged law-breaking as "the spin, the whole spin, and nothing but the spin."

Such passionate views help explain the seeming contradiction between the GOP leadership's support for the politically tumultuous, divisive process of impeachment and their pragmatic need to rule in the next Congress with a whittled-down majority.

DeLay, a blunt-spoken former pest exterminator known for running an efficient vote-whipping organization, is unlikely to find his job getting any easier in the aftermath of the bitter impeachment fight - no matter what the outcome.

Yet, thanks in part to DeLay, detours are looking increasingly unlikely in the march toward impeachment. Clinton has for now ruled out resignation, saying the idea never crossed his mind.

DeLay, meanwhile, has vowed to block the Democrats' bid to push the censure alternative.

Democrats are preparing a parliamentary maneuver aimed at forcing a vote on censure when impeachment goes to the House floor Thursday, but experts say the likelihood it will pass is remote.

Considering the prospect of a Senate trial, DeLay and other Republicans are playing down the messages of doom and gridlock being advanced by Democrats.

"We will not shut down as a government," DeLay said. "We will continue with our work and the work of the American people."

Impeachment as catharsis

On the very optimistic side, some conservative GOP members are suggesting that this whole process of potentially purging Clinton will prove cathartic for Congress and the nation.

"Most of the Democrats privately hate defending the president on this," says Rep. David McIntosh (R) of Indiana, who leads a conservative House faction. "There are a lot of Democrats who in private don't blame us."

Other conservatives agree.

"I think that once this sad episode is over, there will be a tremendous coming together in the legislative body and across the country," predicts Peter Roth, political director of the conservative lobby GOPAC.

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