The Mind of the Republican Moderate

When Chatterbox caught up tonight with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert–the New York moderate Republican who three days ago voted to impeach Clinton but yesterday started circulating a letter urging the Senate not to convict–Boehlert was feeling a little aggrieved. The letter had made page one of the New York Times, and had given many people the impression that Boehlert and the other three Republican moderates who signed it had abruptly changed their minds. (The others are Benjamin Gilman of New York, Michael Castle of Delaware, and James Greenwood of Pennsylvania.) Boehlert wanted Chatterbox to understand that the letter is not “a reaction to the reaction.” It had been set in motion a couple of weeks ago, he said. Even as Boehlert voted to impeach, he was planning to urge the Senate not to follow through.

And yet Chatterbox remained confused. Why didn’t Boehlert join the Democrats and Republican Reps. Connie Morella and Peter King in supporting the failed Saturday motion, brought up just before the impeachment vote, to bring censure to the floor? Because, Boehlert said, the Democratic censure language was just “a tap on the wrist” (true) and, under House rules, couldn’t have been amended on the floor (Chatterbox will take Boehlert’s word on that, but if any folks out there know differently Chatterbox would be glad to hear from them). Boehlert supports a censure that would include a fine and a clear statement that Clinton is still subject to prosecution. Besides, Boehlert said, the chair had already ruled the censure resolution non-germane. The House almost never overrules the chair on such rulings–it hasn’t, Boehlert’s legislative director, David Goldston, told me, since “early in the century.” But surely such etiquette is beside the point when the House is voting on impeaching a president–an occurrence even more unusual than overruling the chair.

To review: In order to avoid supporting censure language that was just “a tap on the wrist,” Boehlert voted for impeachment language that set in motion consequences that Boehlert didn’t favor. To avoid a tone-deaf symbolic gesture, Boehlert opted for legislation that went well beyond the symbolic, in the hopes that he could somehow prevent it from being implemented. Welcome to the mind of the Republican Moderate, circa 1998.

–Timothy Noah