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House Panel Passes 3 Impeachment Articles

Waters,TWP Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) talks with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), left, during the House Judicary Committee Impeachment hearings. (The Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page A1

    A torn and troubled House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend the impeachment of President Clinton yesterday just nine minutes after he made a hastily arranged appearance in the Rose Garden to declare himself "profoundly sorry" and ready to accept a rebuke short of leaving office.

    Disregarding the plea, the committee on a straight 21 to 16 party-line vote approved an article of impeachment asserting that Clinton has "brought disrepute on the Presidency" by committing perjury before a grand jury. Within hours, it passed two other articles alleging perjury in the Paula Jones suit and obstruction of justice, leaving a fourth and final article on abuse of power until this morning.

    The committee's actions repeated history in the same chamber of the Rayburn House Office Building where articles of impeachment were issued in 1974 against President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned days later. The votes guaranteed that Clinton next week will become the first president since Andrew Johnson to face an impeachment vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.

    The split-screen timing of the president's five-minute speech and the committee vote gave a dramatic, even surreal quality to the moment of judgment. After hours of grave debate, all but seven of the panel members left the dais to watch Clinton march before the television cameras at the White House for one final appeal.

    But his words, contrite without any new confession, changed none of their minds, and as the president stopped speaking at 4:15 p.m., the members shuffled back to their seats to begin voting on the first article at 4:24 p.m. Nor did he appear to sway many of those he was actually addressing, the handful of moderate Republicans who will cast the deciding votes on the floor next week.

    Appearing on the eve of a four-day trip to the Middle East, Clinton acknowledged that he "never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family" about his infidelity with Monica S. Lewinsky. "Quite simply," he said, "I gave in to my shame."

    Without mentioning the word "impeachment," he explicitly embraced for the first time the alternative punishment promoted by his Democratic allies, a nonbinding censure resolution.

    "Nothing – not piety, nor tears, nor wit, nor torment – can alter what I have done," he said. "I must make my peace with that. I must also be at peace with the fact that the public consequences of my actions are in the hands of the American people and their representatives in the Congress. Should they determine that my errors of word and deed require their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that."

    Unsatisfied committee Republicans noted that the president still did not admit that he lied under oath. "I don't think he said anything new, unfortunately, except that he was ashamed of what he did, which he certainly should be," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). "But he never actually admitted the perjury and obstruction of justice."

    Hurrying back to the room to vote, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) murmured, "He just can't get there, can he? Too bad for the country. Too bad for him."

    The White House offered only a terse response following the first of the votes last night. "The fact that this was a strictly party-line vote speaks for itself," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

    In the Democratic committee room, there was disbelief, a wave of "this can't be happening" sentiment, as one Democrat put it. For many in the president's corner, the dominant feeling was resignation.

    "There's nothing the president could say that would change the actions of this committee," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.). "I have been convinced since September the Republicans on this committee were going to vote to impeach the president."

    Among the Republicans, though, there was no visible glee, only expressions of awe at the gravity of their action. "I felt as I was voting more emotion than I have felt during any other vote I have ever taken as a member of Congress," said Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). "It's very serious and I felt very sad doing it, but I absolutely thought it was my responsibility under the Constitution because of the president's actions."

    Few members of Congress have ever been called on to cast such a vote. In 1843, the House readily defeated an impeachment resolution filed by opponents of President John Tyler angry at a veto. In 1868, the House approved 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson in a dispute born out of disagreement over how to reconstruct the South following the Civil War, but Johnson was acquitted after a Senate trial by a single vote. A century later, Nixon, convinced of impending defeat, never let it get as far as the House floor.

    "This vote says something about us," Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said before the decision. "It answers the question: Just who are we and what do we stand for? Is the president one of us or is he a sovereign? We vote for our honor, which is the only thing we get to take with us to the grave."

    Unlike during Watergate, the committee decision defied strong public sentiment against impeachment. While a majority of those surveyed in a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll agreed that Clinton committed perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power, only 34 percent said they wanted the committee to approve impeachment, compared with 63 percent who opposed it.

    Confronted with that conundrum, the House will return to Washington for caucuses on Wednesday and begin debating the articles Thursday. More lawmakers outside of the committee began disclosing their decisions yesterday, including five Republicans who announced that they will vote for impeachment: C. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Tillie Fowler (Fla.), Jack Metcalf (Wash.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.).

    White House allies continued to press their case to allow a censure vote as a substitute for impeachment. Hyde has agreed to permit a resolution to be considered today, confident it will be rejected, but Democrats met with little success in persuading House Republican leaders to grant a floor vote.

    Nine Democratic veterans of the Judiciary Committee that considered Watergate sent a letter to lawmakers yesterday pushing for a censure vote. And Geraldine A. Ferraro, a former representative and Democratic vice presidential nominee, called several undecided Republican women over the past two days to lobby against impeachment, including Fowler and Reps. Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.), Sue W. Kelly (N.Y.) and Constance A. Morella (Md.).

    Each article of impeachment approved by the committee will be considered separately on the House floor and, if any one passes, the matter would be sent to the Senate for a trial where Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would preside. Few believe the Senate would muster the two-thirds vote required for conviction, but a trial could occupy weeks if not months.

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) issued a rare joint statement yesterday vowing not to comment on the issue "unless and until the full House, by its action, makes it clear that this body has a specific constitutional duty to consider."

    As they opened their deliberations shortly after 9 a.m. yesterday, some of the most junior members of the Judiciary Committee gave heartfelt speeches about their futile struggle to find common ground across party lines.

    "I long ago gave up the notion that I could depart these proceedings undamaged," said Rep. Ed Pease (R-Ind.). "Given what I know now, though, I anticipate that I will conclude this matter the way I began it, somehow managing to irritate virtually everyone in my district who holds an opinion on the subject. Those who believe there is nothing will be disappointed to know that I believe there is. Those who want me to do everything I can to vilify this president in very way possible will be disappointed to know my assessment on the facts cannot allow me to do that."

    While divided sharply along party lines, the debate featured fewer of the histrionics that dominated earlier stages of the inquiry. Even as they disagreed strenuously, members went out of their way to preserve comity, yielding some of their time to colleagues across party lines and sometimes even complimenting each other.

    Article I approved yesterday concludes that Clinton lied to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury on Aug. 17 about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky, about his previous testimony in the Jones lawsuit, about false statements he allowed his attorney to make during that case and about his "corrupt efforts" to influence testimony by Lewinsky and others.

    "In doing this," the article says in language virtually identical to the other articles, "William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States. Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States."

    The debate on the article focused less on the weighty constitutional consequences of impeachment and more on the specifics of perjury. Democrats complained at length that the article did not detail which specific sworn statements Clinton made that Republicans allege were perjurious, arguing that perjury requires a higher standard of proof than lying under oath.

    "We're not dealing with fun and games here," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). The committee, he said, had a duty to be exact.

    Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said the Republicans did not want to be specific because they wanted to obscure the fact that the dispute came down to conflicting statements about sex. "They knew a losing case when they see one," he said.

    Republicans expressed impatience with the argument, pointing out that Clinton's testimony and the evidence undermining it were outlined at great length in Starr's 453-page referral to the House and in GOP investigator David P. Schippers's closing presentation on Thursday.

    "He knows darn well what he's charged with," said Rep. Robert L. Barr (R-Ga.).

    Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) successfully offered an amendment saying Clinton committed grand jury perjury on "one or more of the following" of the four counts it listed, rather than specifying that all of them occurred. Democrats did not offer any amendments to the articles. As Frank told reporters, "What's important about articles of impeachment is that they exist. The wording is much less important."

    Article II alleges that Clinton committed perjury in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case related to his affair with Lewinsky, including his sworn denials that they had "sexual relations." The article passed on a 20 to 17 vote at 6:30 p.m., with Graham the lone Republican to break party lines. He said he did so because it involved testimony in a civil lawsuit that has now been settled.

    Article III, passed 21 to 16 at 9:15 p.m., charges that Clinton committed obstruction of justice in both the Jones case and the Starr investigation. Among other things, it says, Clinton encouraged Lewinsky to provide false testimony and hide gifts that had been subpoenaed by Jones's lawyers; helped her find a job at a time when he was counting on her sworn denial of their affair; allowed his attorney to introduce Lewinsky's false affidavit during his deposition; and tried to coach the possible testimony of his secretary, Betty Currie.

    "We are not talking about little white lies or half-truths," said Chabot, but a "well-planned effort to obstruct our system of justice. ... These are criminal acts that cannot be ignored."

    Democrats countered that the evidence of obstruction was weak, noting for example that there was no direct testimony that Clinton ordered Currie to retrieve gifts and pointing to Lewinsky's own statement that the president never told her to lie.

    "In the absence of hard facts, we assume a conspiracy," said Meehan. "There are no hard facts to support the charge, just assumption, after guess, after inference."

    The committee did not take up Article IV last night, saving what appears to be the most problematic debate for today. That article contends Clinton abused the power of his high office, adopting language from the Watergate era, but a number of Republicans have expressed doubts about it because it relies in part on actions that may have been objectionable but were not criminal.

    Among other things, it maintains that the president lied to the American public and "frivolously and corruptly" asserted executive privilege. Several Republicans have said they think it is a stretch to call an executive privilege claim impeachable and may try to amend the article.

    After the articles, Hyde has promised to allow a vote on a Democratic censure resolution declaring that Clinton "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him."

    As it wrapped up the proceedings last night, the committee engaged in a final debate over the implications of its actions. Hyde spoke out to minimize the impact, noting that members were simply determining "whether there is enough evidence" to submit the matter to the Senate.

    "I just want to say people watching this on television might get the wrong idea that . . . if we pass these articles of impeachment, we're throwing the president out of office," he said. "That's exactly not true."

    That drew immediate protests from Democrats who fear such a line of reasoning will make it easier for ambivalent Republicans to throw their support to impeachment. "What they're trying to do is define impeachment as censure," Frank said. "This is Henry's effort to frame the issue of impeachment, to say impeachment's not really impeachment so he can get more Republicans to vote for it."

    Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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