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Capitol Letter: Sacrificing Gary Condit

The Gary Condit story is no longer about one obscure congressman and the disappearance of a young woman. With the return of Congress, the media glare has shifted to the Democratic leadership in the House and whether Democrats will move to punish Condit for his role in the media maelstrom. Yet, what exactly has Condit done? He's guilty of serial adultery, which is not uncommon in Washington. And he failed to be explicit about the nature of his relationship with Chandra Levy, a woman half his age, when she was reported missing. Whether that impeded the police investigation, we don't know.

If Condit is guilty of something untoward, he's handled the situation brilliantly by making sure there isn't a shred of evidence to tie him to Levy's disappearance. Yet House Democrats appear poised to take some action against him, or at least mount enough credible threats of action in the hope that Condit will wave the white flag by announcing that he will not seek another term.

The leadership's likeliest action is to remove Condit from the House Intelligence Committee. Democratic leader Richard Gephardt initially defended Condit as an "honorable" man, but sharply reversed course after watching the congressman's evasive performance on national television. Gephardt has two worries: First, he's afraid the Condit scandal could hurt Democratic efforts to take back the House in next year's midterm elections. Second, he's got his own future presidential candidacy to consider. Taking what passes for a moral stand in a scandal of this sort is part of the imperative of being a national candidate.

Members of Congress are traditionally loath to strip a colleague of committee membership, and nobody can remember it ever being done midsession. Democrats didn't reappoint Texas Rep. Phil Gramm to the House Budget Committee after the 1982 election, prompting him to switch parties and win in a special election as a Republican. Gramm had been caught passing inside information about Democratic strategy and tactics to the Republicans, presaging his change of political party. More recently, Democrats withheld committee assignments from Ohio Rep. James Traficant, who has been indicted for racketeering and who mostly votes with the Republicans anyway. (Traficant pled not guilty; his trial is pending.)

By speaking out strongly, if belatedly, in condemning Condit's behavior, Gephardt opened the door to further action. But he won't be walking through that door unless he has the full weight of the Democratic Caucus with him. "This is not something he would do unilaterally," says a Democratic leadership aide. "He doesn't interpret his role as judge, jury and executioner here." Getting Democrats to coalesce behind a particular punishment will be hard. Members of both parties view these actions as a slippery slope. For example, Republicans allowed Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster, who resigned from Congress earlier this year, to keep his seat on the Intelligence Committee even while he was under investigation for taking bribes and steering business to his girlfriend, who had been his chief of staff.

Informal conversations about how to handle Condit are just getting underway, and their outcome is uncertain. Focus groups show that so far most people don't know Condit is a Democrat; and if they do, they don't care. "They think Washington is a cesspool, and that the morals of politicians are continuing to decline," says the Democratic aide. "Their attitude is, 'This is the guy who got caught'." The scandal tarnishes Congress as an institution, and hurts incumbents, which, in some convoluted way, could help Democrats, or at least not disadvantage them any more than the opposition.

The Democrats are putting the squeeze on Condit, hoping he will decline to run again. That should take the heat off. But Condit is a fighter. When he was in the state Assembly in California, he took on the legendary Democratic Speaker Willie Brown and didn't back down even after it became clear he wouldn't win and would suffer recriminations for even trying.

Few people beyond the Condit family have a stake in the survival of a congressman they never heard of before his name was linked to a missing person. Arguing that Condit deserves a zone of privacy falls on deaf ears. That makes Condit the ideal scapegoat for a police department lacking leads, a family desperate to keep alive the search for their daughter and a media eager for real villains, not just budget prevaricators.

RENO'S RUN

Now that Janet Reno has made it official that she's a candidate for Florida governor, her top priority is to find a campaign manager. The search won't be an easy one. First, the implacable Reno is considered tough duty because she resists anything that smacks of packaging. "What you see is what you get," says a Democratic Party official. Secondly, Democrats see her as something of a spoiler. They had hoped to clear the field for Pete Peterson, the former POW who just finished a stint as ambassador to Vietnam. Peterson was literally packing his bags in Hanoi to fly home when Reno announced her candidacy. Needless to say, she didn't consult with the Democratic National Committee.

Still, at least one official had grudging admiration for Reno's debut as a candidate and the political imagery invoked as she stood dressed in a simple dress at the weathered door of her rustic Florida house, vegetables ripening in the window. "No one thinks of her as politically ambitious, and they're right," says Ann Lewis, a longtime friend and White House aide during the Clinton years. "She really does care about the state." Democrats still wish she weren't their candidate, and Republicans are gleeful at the prospect of taking her on. The much maligned Reno should feel right at home.

SEARCHING FOR A CELEBRITY IN TEXAS

Hard-liners took another blow this week with Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's announcement that he will not run for a fourth term. Even if Republicans sweep Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina, they will be a different breed of Republican than their predecessors. Gramm is the Senate's most influential economic conservative. Departing North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms is the GOP's staunchest social conservative with South Carolina's Strom Thurmond following close behind. Democrats would love to convince former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros to run for Gramm's seat, but initial soundings have been negative. "On a purely human level, this guy is not willing to jump back into the arena," says a Democratic official. "I don't think he has the stomach for it."

Cisneros was forced to resign as secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration because of charges that he had lied to the FBI about the amount of money he had paid to a woman with whom he had had a extramarital relationship. Short of a celebrity candidate like Cisneros, Democratic chances of taking the Gramm seat are not high, but Republicans will have to divert resources to defend a seat that would otherwise have been safe.

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