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Kinda Sorta Impeaching the President

Legal and constitutional scholars Ross Anderson, Stephen Presser and Bruce Fein are clearly taken with the proceedings.
Legal and constitutional scholars Ross Anderson, Stephen Presser and Bruce Fein are clearly taken with the proceedings. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Dana Milbank
Saturday, July 26, 2008

"It seems that we are hosting an anger management class," Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas told his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday morning.

He had a point.

House Democrats had called the session, given the anodyne title "Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitations," to allow the left wing to vent its collective spleen. The left, led by diminutive Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), wants impeachment proceedings against the lame-duck president. Democratic leaders have said there will be no such thing, because the proceedings would be practically useless (there isn't enough time) and politically reckless (it would disrupt an election environment that heavily favors Democrats).

They therefore settled on a compromise: a non-impeachment impeachment hearing. Kucinich and his ilk could talk about impeachable offenses at the hearing, but it would not be called an impeachment hearing.

John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the chairman, delicately skirted around the word "impeachment" in his opening statement, referring obliquely to "the power to remove" officeholders. He closed with a plea that "it's in all our interests to work together."

Right, Mr. Chairman.

"Hearing on Impeachment on Friday," trumpeted a news release from David Swanson, a far-left activist affiliated with Kucinich.

"We are here having impeachment proceedings," agreed Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), from the far right. "Whether it's called the power to remove, these are impeachment hearings."

"This is not an impeachment hearing," Conyers felt obliged to remind everybody.

"Maybe," proposed Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), "what we're here for is something called impeachment lite. . . . We're sort of in that Never-Neverland of accusing the president of impeachable offenses but not taking actions to impeach him, which I guess impugns him but does not impeach him, but maybe it has the same effect in the court of public opinion."

There was more truth to that than Democratic leaders could admit in public. Faced with continuing threats from Kucinich to embarrass his Democratic colleagues on the House floor with more impeachment resolutions, leaders scheduled the hearing for a Friday when the House was out of session to diminish the attention it would get. They packaged Kucinich with other witnesses, including Reps. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Brad Miller (D-N.C.), whose proposals didn't involve impeachment. And they also invited all stripes of dissidents, including the Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr.

But the anger management session seemed to satisfy the left-wingers, who lined up hours before the session. Conyers gave the impeachment activists 20 minutes after the 10 a.m. start time to savor the moment with various cheers and whistles in the committee room. They applauded loudly when Kucinich was escorted into the room by his much taller wife.

Conyers gave each member of the committee a chance to grandstand, eating up more than an hour.

"This committee should immediately begin impeachment hearings!" thundered Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a key ally of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The audience members cheered.

"Let's restrain ourselves, please," Chairman Conyers counseled.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) also played to the gallery with his eye-for-an-eye logic: "If lying about consensual sexual activity fits the bill for impeachment, then certainly lying to the American people about the reason for invading Iraq . . . qualifies as an official -- excuse me -- as an impeachable offense." The crowd applauded on cue.

"I am inclined to remind everyone," Conyers intoned again, "please refrain from any actions of support or opposition."

Republicans knew, as Smith put it, that "nothing is going to come out of this hearing with regard to impeachment," because "the Democratic leadership has said, time and again, they have no intention of bringing any impeachment resolution."

Still, some Republicans, perhaps calculating that the politics of an impeachment resolution were in their favor, played along by pretending the impeachment prospects were real. "I know that many here today on both sides of the rostrum, and many looking in, are anxious to debate whether the 43rd president of the United States should be impeached, and I'd like to address myself to that issue in my opening remarks," proposed Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

But others tried to force Conyers to uphold his promise. "I want to take the chairman at his word this morning that this hearing is not about impeachment," said Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican, "and therefore I hope we can expect that none of the witnesses will even mention the word 'impeachment.' "

The challenge was on -- and, incredibly, Kucinich, the first witness, did not invoke the I-word even once. He merely asked that H. Res. 1258 be entered into the record.

"Without objection," Conyers said.

Maybe that's because Conyers read the resolution's title: "Impeaching George W. Bush, President of the United States, of high crimes and misdemeanors."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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