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Analysis: In Debate, Divided They Stand

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Robert G. Kaiser
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A27

    For more than 12 hours yesterday, Democrats and Republicans wrestled each other for the historical and political high ground. As the debate droned on, punctuated by occasional flashes of rhetorical energy, no one doubted that President Clinton would be impeached when the House votes this morning, but members on both sides claimed theirs was the just position that history would reward.

    The debaters generally stuck to familiar arguments, but did not respond to the other side's points. So Republicans declared, again and again, that Clinton was clearly guilty of "felonies" and "crimes" of perjury and obstruction of justice -- crimes that must lead to impeachment to preserve the rule of law. And Democrats insisted, equally persistently, that the president's lies about an illicit affair -- often described as "private wrongs" or something similar -- failed to meet the standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

    Democrats insisted that the Republican leadership's refusal to allow a vote on censure instead of impeachment was unfair to them and to the people who -- polls suggest -- consider censure the best punishment for Clinton. Republicans replied that the Constitution does not provide for the House to censure a president, and that censure would be the easy way out.

    The rhetoric was mostly familiar from weeks of previous debate. Through most of the long day and evening, the House chamber had more empty chairs than full ones. But on several occasions, individual members caught their colleagues' attention.

    Early in the day, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the minority leader, provoked a sustained, standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike when he said: "We are now at the height of a cycle of the politics of negative attacks, character assassination, personal smears of good people. . . . It's no wonder to me and to you that the people of our country are cynical and indifferent and apathetic about our government and about our country. The politics of smear and slash and burn must end."

    The applause that followed filled a rare bipartisan moment in the impeachment debate. But it was just a moment. The bitter partisan argument over Clinton's impeachment quickly resumed.

    Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, introduced the Republicans' principal themes in his opening speech. "I wish to talk to you about the rule of law," he began, then added, "the rule of law stands in the line of fire today." Invoking the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the "sacred honor" of the Founding Fathers, Bunker Hill and Abraham Lincoln, he argued that this cardinal principle of American democracy was at risk if the House failed to impeach Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice.

    "In creating a presidential system, the framers invested that office with extraordinary powers," Hyde said. "If those powers are not exercised within the boundaries of the rule of law, if the president breaks the law by perjury and obstructs justice by willfully corrupting the legal system, that president must be removed from office."

    Gephardt, who followed Hyde to open the debate, offered historical allusions of his own. "We are considering the most radical act our Constitution allows," and the process of consideration is unfair, he said. "In your effort to uphold the Constitution, you are trampling on the Constitution." Gephardt quoted Lincoln, Judge Learned Hand and the Book of Isaiah.

    These two speeches introduced a daylong struggle to stake out positions that will be remembered favorably by history.

    Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), for example, observed: "We have divided this House with partisan politics, sowing mistrust and exposing the darkness in our own hearts. It started with the first vote of [this] Congress to censure the speaker [Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)] and it has continued to this day. . . . It is no wonder that we are losing the public's trust. After today, when the impeachment frenzy subsides, we will survey the damage to our own political system. We will have unnecessarily crippled the presidency for a generation to come. We will have wantonly weakened this House of Representatives, reaching a new low in partisan rancor."

    And on the other side, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) said, "If we allow perjury to be viewed as a sign of legal finesse, we will be responsible for setting the standard that any future president may lie under oath for any personal convenience, and may do it without regard to constitutional consequences. Under this perversion of the law, any president may commit perjury for reasons of self-interest and thereby trample his constitutional obligation to ensure that our laws are faithfully executed. . . . We must keep faith with our founders' dream that a nation could rise and be sustained where no person is above the law."

    Though "history" was much discussed, only a few members confronted the historically unique circumstance that brought these articles of impeachment to the House floor -- the referral from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Hyde touched on it in his opening speech, invoking Starr's referral as justification for his Judiciary Committee's failure to do any original investigation of its own. Starr's referral, Hyde said, "consisted of 60,000 pages of sworn testimony, grand jury transcripts, depositions, statements, affidavits, video and audio tapes."

    Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) criticized reliance on Starr: "Will an independent counsel's fact-finding be the sole record upon which the House votes to impeach a president? If so, I fear for the future presidents of either party whose tenure in office might be threatened by the sword of overreaching that we have all accused independent counsels [of] at one time or another."

    Republicans repeatedly took comfort from the fact that Democrats had offered "no challenge to the facts," in the words of Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). Democrats repeatedly replied that the facts did not describe a high crime worthy of impeachment. "Impeachment is for matters involving behavior that constitutes a threat to the nation, the Constitution and the office," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). "Impeachment is primarily a political process. . . . not a judicial or legislative act."

    Earlier scandals including Gingrich's ethics committee investigation, the Iran-contra affair and Watergate were invoked during the day. Democrats saw no meaningful parallel between Richard M. Nixon's transgressions in Watergate and Clinton's, but some Republicans did.

    Rep. Tom J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), for example, said, "We have heard. . . . that this is different from Watergate, but really, is it? In Watergate, the president lied to the American people. This president lied to the American people. In Watergate, the president did not commit perjury. This president . . . did commit perjury."

    Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also saw similarities. Nixon, he said, subjected himself to impeachment "the day [he] failed to answer" a congressional subpoena for Watergate-related information, because that represented an effort by Nixon to usurp from Congress the power of impeachment. "And the day that William Jefferson Clinton failed to provide truthful testimony to the Congress . . . is the day that he chose to determine the course of impeachment. He usurped our power."

    One member used yesterday's debate to indict both parties for turning to a politics of scandalmongering. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who leaves the House in January to take the Senate seat he won in November, said: "What began 25 years ago with Watergate as a solemn and necessary process to force a president to adhere to the rule of law has grown beyond our control, so that now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box.

    "It has been used with reckless abandon by both parties. . . . We cannot disagree, it seems. We cannot forcefully advocate for our positions without trying to criminalize or at least dishonor our adversaries. . . . And it is hurting our country. It is marginalizing and polarizing this Congress."

    For Schumer, this was an argument against impeaching Clinton. But most Republicans who spoke yesterday said impeachment was imperative.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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