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Another 'Surreal' Day on the Hill

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Ceci Connolly
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A1

    The day began on a conciliatory note, with retiring House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in what may have been a valedictory address, making an eloquent plea for colleagues to set aside partisan rancor and support President Clinton in the Persian Gulf.

    But within hours it got ugly.

    Republicans decided to push ahead with debate on Clinton's impeachment, prompting furious protests from Democrats who wondered how the House could do this to a commander in chief, while the same commander in chief was putting servicemen and women in harm's way.

    And by evening the day had turned even uglier, almost unbelievable.

    In the Capitol basement, Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) had gathered House Republicans to talk about the impeachment schedule. Then, three-quarters of the way through the meeting, he detonated a bomb of his own, confessing he had had several extramarital affairs during 33 years of marriage.

    After two days of war, and nearly a year of presidential sex scandal, and with the second impeachment debate in U.S. history only hours away, it seemed there could be no more surprises, but Livingston had provided one. There had been many extraordinary days in this Congress, but yesterday could have been the most extraordinary of all.

    "The whole thing is not funny -- bizarre and surreal, yes," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). "But not funny."

    At first, it appeared that things would be simple. At 10 a.m. a handful of members straggled onto the House floor to debate a resolution supporting U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf and calling for the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- measures that virtually the entire House could approve without rancor. It was the only piece of business for the day.

    Republicans were still somewhat in shock from the sudden beginning of the airstrikes, and a bit restrained after critical remarks by some of their leaders -- including House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) -- suggesting Clinton had attacked Iraq to distract the nation from his impeachment problems.

    But in an almost wholly unexpected gesture, Gingrich chose to open the session, the first -- and possibly the last -- time he would do so since being forced to resign after the GOP's surprisingly poor showing in November's election.

    He gaveled the House to order, handed the gavel to Livingston and, striding across the well with a gentle smile, patted a couple of shoulders and shook a couple of hands.

    Then, suddenly human-sized, he stepped to the microphone, and, without the out-thrust jaw, the pointing fingers or the glib invective, he gave a very human speech about American democracy, American leadership and the duty of Republicans to support military action in Iraq even as they moved to impeach the president who ordered it.

    "We have a chance to say today to the world," Gingrich said, "no matter what our constitutional process, whether it is an election or it is the eve of a constitutional vote, no matter what our debates at home, we are, as a nation, prepared to lead the world."

    When he finished, he fled the floor, walking quickly down the corridor to the office he would soon abandon. "Nice speech," someone said.

    "Easy speech," he replied. "It came from the heart."

    Gingrich' serious, collegial mood seemed to last for a while. But Democrats were angry. Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Tex.) criticized Republicans for "precipitously" attacking Clinton the previous day for ordering the airstrikes. These "unsubstantiated personal attacks" were "wrong" and "reprehensible."

    Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) was even tougher: "Never underestimate a desperate partisan whose lust for the president's blood will cause him to make statements that will give aid and comfort to the enemy."

    Most Republicans could only sit and take it. Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), whose remarks about Clinton's motives had triggered a barrage of ill-will Wednesday, spoke again yesterday, but moderately.

    That didn't stop Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a fierce Clinton partisan, from berating him as he left the floor. "You were so busy attacking the president that you accused him of a diabolical scheme," Waters said in describing the conversation later. "It was unpatriotic."

    She told Solomon she was putting him "on notice." Solomon said later that being "a courtly man," he did not reply. He said he was still "not embarrassed or ashamed" for anything he had said.

    As the debate moved ahead, a pro-Clinton rally outside drew a few thousand people for prayers and protests led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Gephardt made a guest appearance, complaining bitterly of the Republicans' determination to debate impeachment during the Iraq airstrikes. "That is wrong! That is wrong! That is wrong!" he yelled.

    The resolution passed as expected, and members, gathered in Washington en masse for the first time in weeks, spent nearly an hour afterward talking with reporters and with each other.

    In the House dining room, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), a fence-sitter who had decided only a day earlier to support impeachment, was paying his bill. "I make my announcement in San Diego, and get on the plane," he recounted. "And when I get off here at 3:30 p.m. we're getting ready to bomb Iraq.

    "This just gets curiouser and curiouser." It wasn't yet 1 p.m.

    In the afternoon, members waited for the "colloquy" among Livingston, Armey and Gephardt, a set-piece floor conversation in which leaders would explain the agreed upon rules of debate.

    Except there was no agreement. Livingston wanted to move ahead with impeachment, regardless of the air strikes. "Let us do our constitutional responsibility," he urged. "Let us do our business."

    Democrats protested. How could impeachment go forward, asked Gephardt, while U.S. troops were "in harm's way?" Off the floor, Democrats promised Republicans would hear similar words again when debate began, and would reap the whirlwind from an outraged public.

    At 6 p.m. Livingston went to the Capitol basement ostensibly to brief his Republican colleagues about the impeachment debate, and he did so. Then he stood up and told his audience that in the past few days, reporters had been investigating his private life. He and his wife Bonnie had determined that "now was the time" to say something about it.

    He pulled a written statement from his jacket and began to read. He confessed to having had extramarital affairs "on occasion." This had caused problems, he said, but "I sought marriage and spiritual counseling, and have received forgiveness from my wife and family, for which I am eternally grateful."

    "We were just slack-jawed," said Roukema, who, along with her colleagues had no clue that Livingston was about to add yet another swirl to the House's maelstrom. People sat wide-eyed, she said, almost in shock.

    Livingston finished the statement, which concluded by saying this was the last word he would have on the subject. "He said his fate was in our hands," Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) said later. "We rose and gave him a resounding ovation."

    A handful of members reassured Livingston, congratulating him on his forthrightness. Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) praised Livingston as a "genuine man of courage," remembered Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).

    At 7:35 Livingston left, surrounded by a half-dozen female members and followed in single file by 40 others of both sexes. A phalanx of Capitol police held reporters at bay.

    And then there was pandemonium in the tunnels.

    "You make a choice, good or bad," said Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who has acknowledged fathering a child out of wedlock. "You have to be man or woman enough to stand up."

    Staff writers Lois Romano and Lorraine Adams contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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