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As Bombs Burst, So Do Tempers

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A44

    It was like throwing gasoline on a fire. The impeachment of President Clinton had already turned the House into the partisan equivalent of an armed camp, but when the bombing of Iraq began, tempers exploded.

    Republican House members, virtually certain they had the votes to impeach President Clinton on at least one and possibly two counts of perjury, trooped to the Capitol's basement catacombs at dusk to hear from their leaders why they should postpone -- why they would have to postpone -- the impeachment debate.

    An hour later the Democrats held their own meeting. Their plan was to remind the Republicans and the public during today's scheduled impeachment debate -- later postponed until Friday at the earliest -- that the GOP had refused to countenance a censure proposal, when censure was the nation's preferred option. "We're not giving up, but we don't have the votes," Rep. Charles B. Rangel said (D-N.Y.). "They're in control."

    The atmosphere was murderous everywhere. As members of the lame-duck Congress drifted in from all points of the compass early yesterday to begin impeachment proceedings, they began comparing notes for the first time in weeks.

    Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) talked about a rally at Harvard University Tuesday night where speakers had ripped impeachment to shreds for hours. "People were trying to crawl in under the door," Markey said.

    Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.), once the only conservative Republican opposed to impeachment but now on the fence, said he was ripped to bits in Fort Wayne for weeks. "I went to Russia for eight days, but they even tracked me down there." He spoke of "having to change my donor base" because of constituent fury.

    "Whatever transpires would not come as a shock to me," said Judiciary Committee member William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), who had done plenty of hard time in the impeachment trenches. "Imagine being a bit player on the stage of the theater of the absurd. How would you feel?"

    And tensions rose even higher at the early evening party caucuses. The Republican meeting was a long one, and members were not in a good mood. "We need a man we believe and not a man who's a liar," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). "That's why we need to get rid of this bum."

    A stack of pizzas entered early, and staffers were kicked out. Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) led everyone in prayer, asking for "the wisdom of Solomon." Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) told the members he had "great reservations about moving forward immediately with impeachment" and suggested "we might consider a short delay."

    Dozens of people spoke, two minutes apiece. Moderate Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), who was seen earlier in the day walking the halls with a sobbing grandchild, promised "this conference will impeach the president." A television was brought in so members could watch Clinton's address. "Every member there focused on every word the president said," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

    Two and a half hours later, it was over. There would be a short delay in the impeachment debate, Livingston said. "We support our troops," he remarked several times, never mentioning "our president." Was the bombing a ploy to divert attention from impeachment? "As to the matter of timing, we leave that to the best judgment of the American people."

    The Democrats' meeting was shorter. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) confirmed that members would hammer away on censure. Members supported Clinton on Iraq and agreed that impeachment should not go forward. A few days would not satisfy Democrats, Gephardt said. "We hope not to take up impeachment until the hostilities are completely ended," he said. "We'll see where we are then."

    In the early afternoon the news began to spread that the bombing was set for 5 p.m., the same time the House Republicans started their meeting. Rumors circulated of a deal to postpone debate.

    An anguished Rep. John Cooksey (R-La.) phoned one reporter to suggest that the bombing "just isn't a good thing to do." Clinton and Saddam "are two guys who are altering their political careers [by] using their armed forces, and misusing them in my view," Cooksey said. "Anyone who misleads cannot lead."

    Did that apply just to Saddam Hussein, or did . . .

    "I didn't say that."

    But Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) did. "Never underestimate a desperate president," he said in a news release a few hours later. "What option is left for getting impeachment off the front page and maybe even postponed?"

    None, he soon concluded in a blistering attack on Clinton during a CNN interview: "We should not be handling the impeachment while he is bombing Iraq and that's exactly the reason he's doing it."

    The White House responded almost immediately with an unvarnished broadside of its own. "No amount of ranting and raving by anyone is going to lead me to speculate on the president's decision-making process or on what options may or may not be available to him," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

    As others took up the cudgels, the House by dusk was in an uproar. There had been little partisan "comity" as the day began, and "trust" between the White House and Congress and within Congress itself had been shattered.

    Livingston's leadership had been called into question. He had pledged to reach out to Democrats, but the minority party was steaming over his refusal to countenance a censure resolution.

    "We can't believe we're at this stage without censure, and the Democrats are going to fight," Markey said. "They used to say the GOP was the Grand Old Party. I call them Get Our President."

    Republicans, for their part, openly called into question Clinton's basic judgment.

    If Clinton lied in the Lewinsky affair, "would he also tell us lies about why it is important to bomb Iraq or take any military action and put Americans in harm's way?" asked Rep. James C. Greenwood (Pa.), one of the few undecided House Republicans and a vote Clinton must have to avoid impeachment. On a close military call "it becomes a question of character," Greenwood said. "Does this guy have the stuff? What guides him?"

    With impeachment seemingly inevitable, Republican fence-sitters began holding news conference almost hourly to announce their decisions to support one, two or even all four of the articles.

    Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) went first in a tape feed from San Diego. "I cannot as a man, a husband, elected official or a father, say that President Clinton did not commit perjury and did not do it willfully."

    He was followed by Rep. Mike Pappas (R-N.J.), an election loser on his way home, who acknowledged making "my share of errors," but noting "it is important to come to terms with our shortcomings." He suggested "the president stand up to his own standards and do the honorable thing and resign."

    Others disagreed. Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), whose news conference came an hour after Pappas's, noted that "only William Jefferson Clinton knows if he is lying or telling the truth. He thinks he's telling the truth, so he shouldn't resign."

    Boehlert said he would vote to impeach, although he was one of the few Republicans who expressed a fondness for censure. But that, he said, was for the Senate to decide. "The Senate would have more flexibility."

    A reporter leaped on his answer, and followed with a loaded question: "Don't you think" that you should want the president to be removed from office when you vote to impeach him? "What I'm doing is sending the matter to the Senate," Boehlert replied.

    Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who announced for impeachment at 3 p.m., criticized the GOP leadership for "seeking political advantage" by refusing to allow a censure resolution. "I would not vote for it," he said, "but it is my view that it should be properly placed before the Congress."

    Did that mean he would vote for censure if the Democrats try to force a vote on it in a procedural ploy? No, it didn't. "It should be done within the rules."

    Which meant it would not be done at all. "Censure is clearly the way to go if they wanted to resolve this," said Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.). But since the GOP doesn't care, by not allowing such a vote the House Republican leadership "is not letting the body work its will."

    Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Edward Walsh and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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