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Gephardt, Top Dem in House, Won't Rule Out Impeachment

By Ceci Connolly
The Washington Post

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) Tuesday again criticized President Clinton for his behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and refused to rule out the possibility of impeachment if the facts warrant such action.

Impeaching the president - and effectively overriding the election of 1996 - should not be taken lightly, Gephardt cautioned. Still, "that doesn't mean it can't be done or shouldn't be done; you just better be sure you do it the right way." Gephardt said if Clinton were to leave office "we'll get through this."

In a series of campaign appearances and interviews, the top Democrat in the House sent a not-too-subtle signal to the White House that he cannot be counted on to blindly back the president.

"If Congress decides to go forward with an impeachment process we will be involved in perhaps the most important task the Congress will ever have," he said during a stop here. "We have to, under the Constitution, carefully examine the facts and then make a judgment on whether or not he should be expelled from office."

Clinton's fate increasingly depends on the willingness of congressional Democrats to support him. Administration aides had urged Democratic allies to declare the Lewinsky saga over after Clinton's speech to the nation in which he acknowledged having an inappropriate relationship with the intern. Tuesday, it was obvious Gephardt was not following the White House script.

"There's going to be a lot more said and written about it before we're done," Gephardt said, noting the media scrutiny of Clinton was "legitimate."

Gephardt said he has not spoken to Clinton since the president's speech. The two men have never been close and signs of tension were evident as the House Democratic leader took pains to make clear his disapproval of Clinton's behavior.

"I'm very disappointed in what he did," Gephardt said in an interview. "There is no way to condone his behavior - the whole totality of what happened in the White House and what he said about it afterward."

"It was wrong and it was reprehensible," Gephardt told radio station WARM in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., later in the day.

Although Gephardt stressed he will wait for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report before making any specific judgments, his remarks were particularly ominous because he was the one mentioning words such as impeachment, expel and Watergate.

"I'm a prospective grand juror," Gephardt said in an interview. "We need to do this right. It needs to be nonpartisan. It needs to be objective. It needs to be careful. It needs to be rational. I think this is a big test for Congress, whether we can do this right. If this becomes a partisan streetfight the American people are really going to be turned off."

Asked if people can trust the president, he replied: "Clearly that's an issue that has to be dealt with and I think the president will deal with it."

Gephardt, a prospective presidential candidate in 2000, is embarked on a three-day campaign swing intended to trumpet some of the party's most promising House candidates. Instead, he and the candidates he stumped with spent much of the day fielding questions about the scandal engulfing Clinton.

During a visit to the home of former Pennsylvania governor Robert P. Casey, whose son is running for an open House seat, all three men were peppered with questions on how the Clinton scandal might play out this fall.

"What he did was wrong," said Pat Casey. "We can't dismiss that." On the question of impeachment, he said: "I'm not going to speculate."

Gephardt made clear his priority: "I want to keep the trust and faith and confidence of the American people."