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On the Hill, a Day of History and Solemnity

Sydney R. Yates Retiring Rep. Sydney R. Yates (D-Ill.) in his office. (Dudley M. Brooks — The Post)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A1

    For most of them, it would be the longest day they had ever spent in Congress and probably the most important vote they would ever cast. No matter how they felt about impeachment, Republican or Democrat, there was no way to prepare for it, no way to be ready.

    Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) agonized for days, losing sleep, rewriting his speech and listening to advice, striving to come to closure. Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey (D-Calif.), a passionate defender of the president, tried to be angry, but anguish made her voice break whenever she spoke about it.

    Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) wrote a letter to her 5-year-old son from the floor of the House, to be sealed and opened – whenever. Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) wanted to memorize the chair, the desk, the reporter interviewing him, the winter sunshine coming through the window, because he knew people would ask him about the day for as long as he lived.

    Pundits are fond of saying that the House, unlike the more patrician Senate, is truly a cross-section of America. It has men and women, young and old, short members and tall members, former football players and former CIA agents, farmers and teachers, TV anchors and track stars, Wasps, Catholics, Jews, blacks, Hispanics and Asians.

    For nine House members, as for more than 400 others, yesterday was a curiously leveling experience. In less than 24 hours they would vote for only the third time in history on whether to impeach a president of the United States, and whoever they were, wherever they were from, or whatever they believed in, it was a decision of such moment that it humbled them all.

    The House impeachment debate droned quietly from the overhead TV. The phones were nearly silent after days of ringing off the hook with invective against impeachment. "I wish I could be angrier," said Rep. Woolsey, her voice choking, "but I'm just sad."

    Elected in 1992, Woolsey was once a welfare mother; today, she represents San Francisco's trendy suburbs. For weeks, she has not been able to go to the hardware store or dry cleaners without being lobbied to vote against impeachment; not that there was ever a question. Calls and petitions in her district are running 9 to 1 in favor of the president.

    Woolsey had few illusions about the impeachment vote. "The Republicans hate Clinton," she said. "They have wanted him out, and now they're on a roll and they think they can win."

    She began the day "somber," a few levels above last Sunday when tears coursed down her cheeks in the sun-dappled United Church of Christ in Petaluma as she rehearsed what she would say in the House. "I thought of the country," she said. "I thought they are risking our democracy."

    She waited nearly three hours for her turn to speak, but when the moment arrived she said she felt "as if the energy has been knocked out of me." She almost could not continue, but managed a short statement, finishing, as she knew she would, with a prayer: "Dear Lord, help us through compromise and conscience to heal our nation."

    As the debate wore on, New Mexico's Wilson, the House's most junior member, sat in a back row of the chamber, balancing a leather-bound binder on her lap. She was alone, scribbling furiously, hour after hour on pages she had entitled, "The Day of Impeachment."

    She also began writing a letter to her 5-year-old son, thoughts she said she will seal in an envelope and give to him many years from now. "The House was silent and attentive, which we rarely are," she wrote.

    Wilson, a Rhodes scholar and an Air Force veteran, won her seat in a special election five months ago after her predecessor died. Like most rookies, she is terribly conscientious, and was one of the first lawmakers to arrive at the Capitol yesterday morning. She had made what she termed her "lonely choice:" She would vote to impeach and risk the wrath of her largely Democratic constituents back home in Albuquerque.

    Instead of ducking into a ground floor side entrance of the Capitol, as she usually does, Wilson strode to the top of its gleaming marble steps, a small gesture to the gravity of the coming day.

    She has become another steely Republican convinced she made the right decision. But at times she is also still an awestruck freshman: "Did you hear Chairman Hyde's speech?" she asked with excitement at midday. "Fantastic! He showed such a sense of the sweep of history."

    She opened her binder and flipped through the pages. "Where is it? There, there's the line," she said, running her finger slowly past every word. "He called this 'a reaffirmation of a set of values that are tarnished and dim.' That's exactly what this is about for me."

    She shut her binder, returned to her seat. She had no plans to speak, but after five hours listening to Democrats question GOP motives, she changed her mind, jotted down some ideas and stepped to the microphone.

    She was looking for a reason not to impeach, she said, but couldn't find it. There was no more gosh-oh-gee. She was speaking in a firm, fiery voice, at home in her House: "You may challenge the facts, you may challenge my reasoning," she said, turning to the Democrats. "But do not challenge the integrity of my purpose."

    The bookcases are empty, his beloved art posters are stacked on the floor, and most of Rep. Sidney R. Yates's papers are already gone to the Chicago Historical Society.

    The Illinois Democrat is 89 and retiring from political life. He is the oldest member of the House, and his votes today will be the last he will ever cast in a half-century in Congress.

    It is an improbable last act for this liberal, an early and ardent foe of impeachment, but he is old enough to remember other strange times, and even tougher votes.

    When he was first elected in 1948, Republicans despised Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal, Yates recalled, but they never dreamed of ousting him. And in the 1960s many knew of John F. Kennedy's extramarital affairs. "But that was prior to the special prosecutor's law," he noted.

    And he remembers when he voted in 1950 against the McCarran Act, intended in the early years of McCarthyism to protect the nation from communists. He was in a tough campaign for a second term against a challenger who branded Yates a communist sympathizer.

    Yates believes that President Clinton's fate should have been left to the new House that will take over next month, when he will be settled in his apartment near the Washington Cathedral, where he plans to read, write, and care for Addie, his wife of 63 years, who is ailing.

    Nevertheless, current events weighed on him. Late Thursday, he began to jot his thoughts on a legal pad. He slept poorly and arose at 6:30 a.m., ate some oatmeal and a banana and caught a ride to work with Mary Bain, 87, his administrative assistant since 1963.

    Yates listened to the first few speeches on the House floor, then walked across the street to his Rayburn Building office to complete the unpleasant chore of packing. "This is a tough day. A tough day," he murmured, and it was unclear whether he was thinking of the turning point in Clinton's life or his own.

    Rep. Castle climbed aboard the commuter train in Wilmington at 7:13 a.m. He had coffee, a roll and a copy of the speech he was thinking of giving on impeachment. It was marked with cross-outs and squiggles. Castle, a leading moderate, was among the rare members who had not made up his mind. He would spend most of the day worrying about what to do.

    When he reached his office the retinue of reporters that accompanied him during the week was gone. No more Ted Koppel, who had walked Castle, in studied solemnity, to what was thought to be a key meeting of moderates Wednesday. Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) was there. "I thanked him for accepting my censure resolution," Castle said, adding, "It was a joke." There would be no censure.

    Through the day yesterday, Castle attempted to "come to closure" on how he would vote. He took each impeachment article and examined the evidence. He was methodical. He talked to no one but his staff and his wife.

    Like most everything he does, his decision came slowly, without drama or flair. He wasn't even sure he wanted to make a statement on the House floor. He wasn't "wildly enthusiastic" about his decision. Nothing in the debate moved him. He felt as if he had heard it all before.

    This was vintage Castle, a low-key, former governor who thinks most rhetoric is bunk. "I've talked to everybody. I've listened to everybody. I've heard far-out stories. I've heard far-out interpretations about what's happened," he said. "You know, so much of what you hear and see is sort of irrelevant."

    But the matter-of-fact tone belied his own twists and turns. He had awakened at 4 a.m. He had distastefully chipped away at the factual details, at times moved to real sorrow as he read the evidence. He had followed every legal rabbit trail, thought about Nixon, worried about Clinton and realized that some of his constituents would hate him no matter what he did. He wanted, more than anything, to be spared this decision.

    By the end of the day, if he had made a decision, he had not announced it.

    Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) walked into his office at 8 a.m. yesterday armed with the weapons of nonviolent struggle: A blue notebook that carried a speech he'd worked on well into the late evening the night before. Some battles go long, so he came prepared for that too.

    "I brought an extra shirt, extra pairs of socks," he said, dropping a bag by his desk. "You never know how long we might be here."

    On a table nearby was a picture of a young Lewis – no pot belly, a full head of hair – lying prone with a fractured skull on a hospital bed in Selma, Ala.

    In a Congress full of men and women with noteworthy pasts, Lewis an almost mythic figure, an original Freedom Rider bashed in the head by white cops as he fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement more than 30 years ago.

    Friday wouldn't be nearly as rough, but the task ahead weighed as heavily as few things have since the bad old days. "I feel somewhat sad and troubled," he said, sighing heavily. "I really didn't feel like it would come to this point. But people are ready to stand up and fight for the cause. It's very serious."

    Shortly before 9 a.m., after leaving a Democratic Caucus meeting, Lewis, 58, headed for the House floor, winding through the Capitol's narrow underground catacombs. "I've walked this way many times," he said in a low voice, "but never on a day like this."

    Lewis spoke during the second hour of debate, and ripped one, his voice rising and falling in the cadences of the southern preacher that he is. "Today, my colleagues, you must choose, as Dr. King wrote, between community and chaos," he said. "You must choose the course of partisan destruction or national reconciliation. We will, in our lifetime, never cast a more important vote. The spirit of history is upon us and the future of the republic before us."

    When Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) awoke at 6:15 a.m. yesterday, his first thought was: "I want to go back to sleep and wake up with this whole thing over with."

    He resisted the urge. Instead he chatted with his children over breakfast, sent them off to school, and brought hot tea to his wife, Peggy, who wished him luck. He was wearing a cheery Christmas tie that somehow clashed with the mood of the day. "I thought about wearing elephants, but that didn't seem right," he said wryly. "My wife gave me this."

    Maybe his ambivalence showed. Late leaving his Vienna home, he ducked into his Cannon Building office at 8:50 a.m., snatched up the mail and headed to the floor. The first letter came from the White House: "The President and Mrs. Clinton cordially invite members of the 105th Congress and up to 30 guests to tour the White House on Wednesday, January 6."

    "Well," Davis said, "some people will go to that."

    Elected last month as the token moderate in the House Republican leadership, Davis juggled the incongruities of a day when history was often stalked by the petty, partisan and pedestrian.

    At 2 p.m., Davis met with former senator and GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole to talk about how Dole might help Davis in his new job overseeing GOP House campaigns. They also talked about how Dole was attempting to urge the Senate to strike a censure deal to save the Clinton presidency, but neither would describe the conversation.

    "I got him to autograph a bunch of his books for me for Christmas presents," Davis said, and didn't apologize for the timing. "He's a statesman," Davis said. "Any time Senator Dole can meet you for 45 minutes, you talk about everything you can."

    Then the telephone rang. It was the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, Georgetown University professor of law who served as a Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Richard M. Nixon. They chatted about local development issues.

    Finally, at 5 p.m., on the House floor, Davis announced he would vote in favor of two articles of impeachment.

    For several days Rep. Serrano had sensed a "different kind of pain" in the House. Usually, he said, "you can have horrible fights," and then go out and have lunch and laugh it off.

    But not now. Serrano ran into a couple of fellow New Yorkers – Republicans – at the elevators yesterday and "the 'hello' I gave them was different, and the 'hello' they gave me was different."

    Serrano is about as militantly anti-impeachment as House members come, believing the Republicans are embarked on a coup d'etat.

    Serrano read his e-mail, called constituents on the telephone, then spent the day on the House floor listening to debate, and off the floor giving interviews in Spanish interviews to Latin American TV and radio stations "who don't have the vaguest idea what we're doing here."

    Back close to the floor in the afternoon, Serrano, exhausted from his late night vigils on the Web and on the phone, looked around him: "I'm trying to remember everything – that wall, that desk, that chair, you, the sun . . . on one hand I wish I wasn't here at all, but on the other, people are going to ask me about it until the day I die."

    Rep. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho) will play a rare double role in the impeachment battle, but yesterday he monitored the debate without an office, without a desk and without even a pager to link him to his staff.

    Crapo, 47, is one of three House members who are senators-elect: They will vote on impeachment today, then, if it becomes necessary, vote in the Senate next year on whether to remove Clinton from office.

    That's why Crapo was operating, quite literally, from his hip pocket yesterday. To make way for newly elected members, the House forced him to surrender his office, phone lines and even his official pager.

    But the Senate has not yet given him a new office, bivouacking him in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building with only a tiny office, two small desks and a couple of phone lines in the basement.

    He's got a pager in his pocket, but it's hooked up to phones in the House Republican leadership offices. When his aides want to reach him, they must trust that the phone answerers will relay the message.

    Like many of his colleagues, Crapo began the day seated in the House chamber listening to the impeachment debate's opening speeches, but he drifted out after a couple of hours, quickly numbed by a barrage of predictable thrusts and counterthrusts leveled by the partisan combatants.

    Still, it was clear that Crapo, a Harvard law graduate, was not taking impeachment lightly. He did not plan to speak because he had nothing new to say, but he spent part of the day in a secluded room, reading portions of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report in an effort "to be very thorough in approaching this issue," he said. "This is one of the most important decisions I'll ever make."

    Crapo called himself "undeclared but not undecided" on impeachment, but there was little mystery about his sentiments. He is bedrock conservative and phone calls from his district have run 10 to 1 pro-impeachment.

    It was Crapo who consulted with congressional ethics experts to determine whether he and the other senators-elect – Reps. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) – were on safe ground voting during both phases of impeachment. He determined they were; "the people of Idaho are entitled to have their votes represented in both proceedings."

    As a conservative Republican who represents the president's home towns of Hope and Hot Springs, Ark., Jay Dickey was in the unenviable position yesterday of representing a district that Clinton won with 60 percent of the vote in 1996 and in which, he estimates, 70 percent of the mayors are opposed to impeachment.

    On the other hand, he said, his telephone calls were running 62 percent in favor of impeachment, and, since he sleeps in his office, he was answering a lot of them. Still, there are a lot of people in Arkansas's 4th District who love Clinton. For Dickey it was going to be a bad political move whatever he did.

    For a week, Dickey, a large amiable man, had been explaining that while he was officially undecided, had already had made up his mind. But he wasn't saying. To anybody.

    This drove reporters crazy for a time, but after a while it didn't seem to matter, since impeachment appeared to be a foregone conclusion. "It matters to me," Dickey said outside the House chamber. "It may not matter in there any more, but it counts."

    Staff writers Lorraine Adams, Charles Babington, Amy Goldstein, Judith Havemann, Spencer Hsu, Terry M. Neal, Lois Romano, and Rene Sanchez contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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