GOP-Led Panel Likely to Back Impeachment
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 6, 1998; Page A1
Although the GOP's disappointing showing in last month's election seemed to doom the chances of presidential impeachment, what many members see as President Clinton's arrogance and lack of repentence have made it far more likely that the House will approve at least one article.
With little doubt that the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee will vote this week to impeach Clinton on charges stemming from his sexual affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, the crucial fight will come the following week, when the House is called into a special session to vote on the committee's action.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) announced yesterday that he would make "a sincere effort" to accommodate a last-minute request from White House lawyers for more time to present an extensive defense of the president, instead of the single day they had been allotted. But Hyde said he still expects a committee vote by the end of this week.
"Our final decision must be guided by what is reasonable," Hyde said. " . . . I also hope this last-minute flurry of possibly redundant witness requests is not intended to delay this inquiry."
Committee sources said Hyde consulted with the panel's Republican members in a conference call yesterday, and was considering granting the White House up to two days to make its defense before the committee. The White House had requested for three or four days.
White House spokesman Jim Kennedy said Clinton's attorneys met yesterday to discuss their presentation. He said the White House team wants to ask former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, Yale University constitutional law expert Bruce Ackerman and Princeton historian Sean Wilentz to appear at a hearing on the constitutional standards of impeachment.
White House alarm over the growing possibility of impeachment contrasted sharply with the confident mood of a few weeks ago. After the elections, Democrats pointed to the Republicans' loss of five House seats and failure to advance in the Senate as proof that the GOP had alienated the public in its zeal to push forward with the impeachment inquiry. Many Republicans, who until then had ignored polls showing that impeachment was extremely unpopular, appeared to waver.
But Hyde and the Judiciary Republicans -- notable for their conservatism -- pressed on, and with the House GOP leadership largely in disarray, the private debate within the party has been largely controlled by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one of Clinton's most outspoken critics.
In this volatile atmosphere, both Republicans and Democrats agree the president committed a critical blunder late last month in his legalistic and, in the GOP view, evasive responses to 81 questions about the Lewinsky matter that had been posed by the Judiciary Committee.
The responses, like Clinton's widely criticized Aug. 17 speech, disappointed many Republicans and conservative Democrats who were leaning against impeachment and searching for a reason to vote against it. These are the members who hold the critical votes that will decide the president's fate.
"I think the brinkmanship and political hairsplitting is driving people crazy," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), who has not stated a position on an impeachment vote. "The doublespeak, the legal jargon and the delaying tactics are hurting the president more than than anything."
Members say that Clinton's attorneys now must present a detailed and compelling defense when they appear before the committee, but it won't be easy. Satisfying one of the several sides in the debate may mean alienating at least one other, or even placing the president in future legal jeopardy.
Republicans argue that Clinton committed impeachable offenses in impeding the investigation of his relationship with Lewinsky and in failing to testify fully and truthfully under oath. The White House has acknowledged that the relationship with Lewinsky was wrong, but has denied that Clinton either lied under oath or obstructed justice and has attacked independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for his handling of the case. Democrats have largely conceded that Clinton lied, but argue that his offenses do not rise to the level of impeachment.
Regardless of how the attorneys decide to pitch their presentation, Republicans and Democrats agree they must do it in a convincingly contrite manner, otherwise Clinton stands a fairly strong chance of becoming the second president in history to be impeached by the full House.
"If they're going to spend the whole time attacking Ken Starr and the whole process, they might as well stay home," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a prominent GOP moderate. "They're just going to hurt themselves again."
Impeachment by a House majority is the congressional equivalent of an indictment. A President cannot be removed from office until the Senate holds an impeachment trial and convicts him by a two-thirds vote.
If the House approves an impeachment article on a vote expected the week of Dec. 13, a Senate trial would begin early next year. A guilty verdict appears virtually impossible in the Senate, which has taken a more temperate view on the seriousness of Clinton's alleged offenses. But while some have suggested that dragging out the process with a Senate trial that ultimately would acquit Clinton could do the GOP serious political damage, there is little evidence of concern within the House.
The Judiciary Committee may send as many as three impeachment counts to the full House, where the passage of at least one -- perjury in grand jury testimony -- is rated a toss-up. If all members are present and voting, 218 votes will be needed to pass an individual count. Five of 228 House Republicans have said they would vote against impeachment, and 10 to 15 others might do the same. Three Democrats, meanwhile, have announced they will vote for impeachment, while two to three others are leaning in that direction.
Rep. Rick A. White (R-Wash.), who lost his seat in November but remains eligible to vote on impeachment in a lame-duck House session this month, said the president's recent demeanor "hasn't impressed me, and I think most Republicans feel the same way." Some members said they resented Clinton playing a round of golf at Camp David during the Thanksgiving holiday while his lawyers drafted responses to the 81 questions.
An aide to Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), a leader of the moderate "Blue Dog" Democrats, cautioned that the White House "should not assume the Democrats will stick together" to defend him. "The president first has to make a case for why these charges are not impeachable," he said.
But even that may not be enough. As one measure of the gravity of Clinton's predicament, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), a determined moderate who had considered supporting the alternative of censuring the president, now views impeachment as all but inevitable.
"In the minds of members, I feel this is over," Gilchrest said late last week. "I think the president could get on his knees and beg for forgiveness and it wouldn't change the impeachment vote. . . . The train has left the station, it's going downhill and there's no brakes."
"You sense the sand shifting," added Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). "The sentiment seems to be building for impeachment at least on perjury."
Others insist that the outcome is still very much in doubt and that a strong eleventh-hour presentation by the president offering his defense against impeachment and expressing profound regret for having put his family and the nation through this turmoil just might help.
"It could do him some good, particularly with those many undecided, middle-of-the-roaders," said Rep. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), who was elected to the Senate in November and would thus serve as one of 100 Senate jurors if Clinton is impeached and put on trial. "I've always said I'm going to hear the last word before I make up my mind. Everyone deserves the opportunity to have their day. The president ought to have his."
After hearing from Starr and reviewing thousands of pages of documents from his investigation, committee Republicans now appear likely to approve articles of impeachment against Clinton on charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power in his alleged efforts to impede inquiries into his conduct with Lewinsky.
In grand jury testimony and in a deposition given in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Clinton admitted having had a relationship with Lewinsky, but, using a limited definition of sexual relations, said they had not had sex. In response to questions implicating him in obstruction, he said he did not recall, denied or denied intent.
Rank-and-file Republicans are demanding that Clinton admit that he lied under oath. "Although there is no guarantee that a public admission of guilt would stop the House from voting on articles of impeachment, I believe it would create an atmosphere in which a penalty other than impeachment could be actively considered," Rep. Bob Franks (R-N.J.) said in letter to Clinton last week.
Yet Clinton must be careful in attempting to placate undecided members, so as not to leave himself vulnerable to criminal prosecution for perjury after he leaves office. None of the censure resolutions being proposed provides Clinton with legal immunity.
Delaware's Castle suggested that Clinton would be "well-served to fire all of his lawyers and work out with his true friends what he wants to say." Added Bunning: "The legalistic approach always bothers the non-lawyer, and there are a lot of us here."
Still, Castle stressed that many of his GOP colleagues have yet to make a final decision on impeachment, among them a majority of about 15 Republican moderates who participated in a Thursday conference call. "It's enough votes to make the difference," Castle said. "This thing is far from determined."
Another GOP moderate, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, suggested that Republicans were making as many blunders as the president, and "there is a lifetime between now and when we vote on this."
The GOP moderate conceded that the White House lawyers' responses to the 81 questions hurt the president's cause, but he criticized the committee's hearing last week on "the consequences of perjury" as a "kangaroo circus" that may have evened the damage.
And with its short-lived foray into a campaign finance probe last week, quickly dropped after evidence to support additional investigation or impeachment charges was not found, the committee "left the impression that they didn't know what they were doing," the moderate said. "They are trying to put meat on the bones, but they're coming up empty-handed. From the beginning there was the hope that this wasn't going to be a vote on sex, friend, but try as they might, it's all about sex."
Another problem is that with Congress adjourned, members are scattered around the country and have had few opportunities to talk and exchange views. On a vote of such political and historic significance, many members prefer to sound out respected colleagues in private before reaching a decision.
"This is one of those circumstances where members feel isolated and very much on the line personally," said an aide to a prominent House GOP moderate.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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