Which Bug Gets the Gas?

Will the next house DeLay fumigates be that big White one or his own?

After the election ousted several GOP pro-impeachment advocates, conventional wisdom had impeachment on life support. That's when House Whip DeLay gave it mouth-to-microphone resuscitation, using his position and influence over Republican members who had received financial aid from ARMPAC. By effectively denying the House the chance to vote for censure rather than impeachment, DeLay kept moderate Republicans from joining Democrats in a consensus.

DeLay whipped the House GOP into voting two articles of impeachment, then advised his colleagues in the Senate to get thee to the evidence room before considering censure. His words were immediately interpreted by the media, with the help of an aide to DeLay, as a reference to a 20-year-old rumor that Clinton sexually assaulted a woman. DeLay's recklessness in fueling unsubstantiated allegations against a sitting president is either the reflection of supreme confidence by a man with a boneless closet, or just verbal business-as-usual by the president's congressional grand inquisitor.

With the falling of the GOP congressional dominoes, DeLay has finally achieved national status. Some of his conservative supporters, after providing the contributions and support to help DeLay reach the pinnacle of his career, are concerned that DeLay's drive for impeachment may be laying the groundwork for his own political waterloo.

Recent history provides some ominous precedents. Few in Congress thought that Newt Gingrich, even after his House censure for ethics violations, would resign from his political position before Bill Clinton gave up the White House. Then came the national elections that trimmed the GOP House majority to 12. Now Gingrich is gone, and the responsibility for the impact of impeachment on the 2000 congressional elections is -- for better or worse -- sitting squarely on the sloped shoulders of Tom DeLay.

Estimates on the price DeLay may pay for his lightning-rod role on impeachment depend both on what happens next in Washington and what happens in the elections two years hence. The Senate is set this week to try the president on the impeachment charges passed under the lash of DeLay's whip, but few think the votes are there to convict Clinton. Most of the congressman's longtime supporters toe the party line on the matter and applaud DeLay for following his convictions. Houston investor Virgil Wagner is a notable, outspoken exception.

Wagner is a a rock-ribbed conservative Republican who puts substantial political contributions behind his convictions. He's also had his fill of the impeachment crusade and wants the troops to get back to the business of fighting for traditional GOP issues such as personal freedoms, less taxation and smaller government. Collecting Bill Clinton's scalp isn't on his agenda.

"The entire Republican leadership in the Congress -- [Senator Trent] Lott, Gingrich, [Representative Dick] Armey and DeLay, the whole group -- made a terrible miscalculation of what they thought the effect would be of attacking Bill Clinton," says Wagner, who runs Houston-based JVW Investments. The former CEO of Sterling Chemical, Wagner believes the GOP turned off voters by coming across as too vociferous and antagonistic on impeachment. They allowed Clinton and fellow Democrats to portray themselves as sticking to real issues while taking the high road and avoiding personal attacks, Wagner said.

"I think [the election results are] a strong reflection of the negativism of the whole Republican leadership in the Senate and the House. And if they don't get back on track and start trying to do what's right for America instead of what's right concerning President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, they're in bad shape for the future.

"I think the leadership has let themselves be lured into a trap, which, if they don't correct quickly, might cost them the majority in both houses in the next election."

Former Houston mayor Lanier has been a steadfast supporter of both Clinton and DeLay and has an even-handed view of the two. He doesn't think Clinton's wrongs rise to the level of impeachable offenses, but he doesn't hold it against DeLay for trying to oust the president. And he figures the only payback to the congressman could come from Clinton in his final years in office.

"DeLay's personal position is secure," opines Lanier, noting that his Houston-area constituency backs his conservative views. And colorless workhorse Denny Hastert, DeLay's deputy whip and new House speaker, is hardly leadership competition.

"His risk is that the Clinton Administration will put his face on the impeachment proceeding," Lanier says. He adds that "the faces they've put on that operation so far have suffered great damage. The president and his forces are very effective at popping a guy.

"If Gingrich had stayed three more days, had it been a bullfight, I think the crowd would have awarded the president Gingrich's ears."

On the other hand, Lanier is betting that the impeachment trial will swiftly conclude with censure, leaving Clinton to finish his term without impeachment as a live issue in the 2000 elections.

"Impeachment requires 67 votes," says Lanier, displaying his trademark affinity for number-crunching. "That would take 12 Democrats moving over, and that ain't going to happen. Since only 2.5 percent of Democratic house members voted for impeachment, apply that same percentage in the Senate and you might get a movement of one Democrat."

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