Vote Sets Capitol Process in Motion
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 11, 1998; Page A01
A House committee last night began the congressional process that could lead to President Clinton's impeachment, and in an atmosphere filled with political and personal uncertainty recommended that the full House immediately make public independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
By a unanimous voice vote, the House Rules Committee set the stage for a vote on the House floor today and the likely disclosure of the approximately 500-page report by this afternoon.
Although Democrats had protested some of the provisions of the Rules Committee resolution, their lack of dissent in the vote was a clear indication of their resignation that they have little to say in the matter.
The Rules Committee vote, the first step along a road that could lead well into next year, set out a tentative map for the weeks ahead. With approval of the full House today, Starr's report would be disclosed immediately and the Judiciary Committee would have until Sept. 28 to decide which portions of the other material he delivered to Congress should be released.
Congress is scheduled to adjourn for the year Oct. 9, but congressional leaders said they were prepared to recall members in a lame-duck session if necessary to decide before the end of the year whether to proceed with a formal impeachment inquiry. In that event, it would fall to the next Congress, which takes office in January, to conduct the inquiry. The next Congress would first have to reaffirm any impeachment-related decisions made by the 105th Congress.
Last night's Rules Committee vote came amid mounting fears among House Democrats over the potential political fallout from the contents of Starr's report and expressions of gravity by Republicans about the implications of taking the first step.
"This is a very grave day for the House of Representatives, indeed it is a solemn time, I think, in our nation," said Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.).
But the prevailing mood in the House yesterday was one of uncertainty, about the contents of the Starr report and the related material he delivered to Congress and the impact of this on the November midterm elections and ultimately on the fate of the Clinton presidency. All that was clear was that Republicans, who pledged to conduct fair and nonpartisan proceedings, were in control of the proceedings and that the Democrats were on the defensive and skeptical of GOP pledges.
In the initial skirmishing as the product of Starr's four-year investigation reached Capitol Hill, Rules Committee Democrats unsuccessfully sought to give Clinton and his lawyers 48 hours to review the Starr report before it is made public. But even before the vote they acknowledged that they had little hope of prevailing in the committee or on the House floor today.
With Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), sitting in witness chairs, the Rules Committee convened late yesterday afternoon in a solemn atmosphere. "This is a very sad duty, but it is a duty and we must do it," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.).
There were partisan differences from the beginning as both Conyers and Rep. Joe Moakley (Mass.), ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, argued for giving Clinton and his lawyers a look at the Starr report before it is made public. Noting that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was given seven days to review an ethics committee report on some of his activities, Conyers said it was a "breach of fairness" to tell the president that "he can find out what the charges are on the Internet."
Democrats also charged that the Rules Committee resolution violated an agreement reached earlier by Gingrich and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to confine the initial inspection of the additional material from Starr to Hyde, Conyers and their staffs rather than the full committee.
Despite Democrats' objections to the Rules Committee resolution, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said earlier in the day that it was unlikely they would oppose it when it reaches the House floor today.
"I don't think you'll see party-line votes," Hoyer said. "No member, obviously, wants to be perceived as impeding the procedures."
It was clear yesterday that there is also strong sentiment on Capitol Hill, even among some Democrats, to release as much information as possible about the Starr investigation so that House members and their constituents know what they are dealing with before the November elections.
"We want it open, we want it fair, we want it expeditious and we want it done now so we can end it once and for all," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).
Under the Rules Committee recommendation, the initial disclosure to the public of Starr's evidence regarding the president's relationship with former White House intern Lewinsky will be Starr's report. But some of the most sensitive information is in the other material, including grand jury testimony and audio and video tapes, that Starr submitted to Congress in sealed boxes of appendices. Under yesterday's resolution, it will be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee members to determine what should be made public and what should remain secret to protect people who were caught up in the Starr investigation.
Solomon said the Sept. 28 deadline for deciding what to disclose was later than he and other Republicans wanted, but that Hyde persuaded him that that much time was needed.
With tension mounting on Capitol Hill throughout the day, Gingrich gaveled the House into session early yesterday by invoking House rules and traditions dating back to Thomas Jefferson to admonish members to exercise restraint and comity in referring to the Clinton controversy and to abstain from language personally offensive to the president.
"This is not to say that the president is beyond criticism in debate, or that members are prohibited from expressing opinions about executive policy or competence to hold office," Gingrich said. "It is permissible in debate to challenge the president on matters of policy. The difference is one between political criticism and personally offensive criticism."
Asked at a news conference how he would reconcile the speaker's call for comity and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay's organized attacks on Clinton over the Lewinsky matter, House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) replied: "Tom DeLay [R-Tex.] represents a very good example of sort of the feelings that so many of us have. We have to come to terms with it with respect to our institutional role and responsibility. And then we all have a sense of what should be our role and responsibility with respect to ourselves as an individual and a person. Everybody has a lot of latitude in coming to terms with that individually and personally separate on your own terms."
Democrats made no secret of their concern that the procedures put the president at a disadvantage. Nearly every lawmaker who emerged from a morning caucus spoke of the need for "fairness."
"There's a deep feeling in the caucus that the president deserves the right that others have had in similar proceedings to see the material for at least some reasonable period of time before it is released to the public," Gephardt said after the meeting. "Forty-eight hours doesn't seem to me to be unreasonable."
One House Republican leader, who noted that independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh did not give presidents George Bush or Ronald Reagan access to his findings before reporting to Congress on the Iran-contra affair (although neither report referred to possible impeachment), said such a precaution in Clinton's case was unnecessary.
Gephardt said many Democrats are highly skeptical that the GOP can be trusted to run a fair proceeding. "Having said that, I think we have to enter this with a deep desire to do this in a nonpartisan way," he said. "This is not a political process, this is not a reelection, and it is not taking a poll. There is a standard in the Constitution that applies."
But in addition to skepticism about the fairness of an impeachment proceeding run by Republicans, Democrats were clearly fearful of the impact the release of the Starr report will have on Clinton and their party.
"We have to accept the fact this report was put together by 80 prosecutors with substantial resources who know what matters is proving obstruction of justice," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.). "Although it's going to have a lot of salacious details, it's going to be a very difficult report to discuss. If Democrats blindly defend actions that are indefensible, you could have as damaging an electoral result as we had in 1974," the first post-Watergate election, when Republicans suffered devastating losses.
"If I were to put money on it," Moran added, "this Republican Congress is going to vote to impeach the president."
Staff writers Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company