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GOP Blocks House Censure Alternative

Hyde,TWP Committee counsel Thomas Mooney, left, confers with House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., during Saturday's debate on the fourth article of impeachment. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A1

    The House Judiciary Committee approved a fourth and final article of impeachment yesterday alleging that President Clinton abused his power by lying to Congress, and Republican leaders immediately blocked a Democratic censure alternative from being introduced when the full House takes up the articles this week.

    After weeks of cryptic ambiguity, House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) tipped his hand on the constitutional showdown in a letter indicating that he will not allow censure to come to a floor vote, issued barely an hour after such a Democratic proposal was defeated by the panel. "Censure of the president would violate the careful balance of separation of powers and the scheme laid out by the Framers to address the issue of executive misconduct," Livingston said.

    Yesterday's action amounted to a devastating double blow for Clinton as he tries to avoid becoming the second president impeached in the nation's history. Offering censure as an option has been critical to the White House strategy of persuading moderate Republicans to oppose impeachment.

    "It's a sad day for America when extreme elements of one party seek to impeach the president on a party-line vote in a lame-duck Congress without allowing members to vote their consciences," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig.

    The back-to-back decisions set up five frantic days of lobbying leading up to the House debate, which will begin at 10 a.m. on Thursday. Facing long odds of overruling Livingston, the White House plans to embark on a member-by-member campaign bolstered by a blitz of television appearances to build pressure on the GOP leadership to reverse itself and allow the censure vote.

    As the gravity of the situation sank in both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, the committee completed its two-month impeachment inquiry by passing a scaled-back abuse-of-power article. In a tactical retreat, the Republican majority decided to withdraw charges that Clinton lied to the American people and improperly asserted executive privilege, concluding that they were not the "high crimes and misdemeanors" envisioned by the Constitution.

    Shorn of those allegations, Article IV alleges that Clinton committed perjury in responding to committee questions during its inquiry and was approved on a party-line 21 to 16 vote. The panel then swept aside the Democratic censure resolution, 22 to 14, in the only vote the proposal may get.

    "This article stands as an assault on the Congress because of the false and misleading answers he gave to Congress under oath," Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said a day after shepherding through three other articles accusing Clinton of committing perjury and obstructing justice to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    Anguished committee Democrats lashed out at their GOP colleagues for an impeachment process they likened to a Third World "coup" negating two elections and contravening the public will. Republicans decried suggestions of partisan motives, noting that even if Clinton were removed from office by the Senate he would be replaced by a like-minded Democrat, Vice President Gore.

    "There's no lynch mob mentality over here," insisted Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.). Even so, said Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), "What we've done has been reckless and irresponsible."

    Uncertain of his future, Clinton left Washington for Israel yesterday with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, for a previously scheduled four-day Middle East peace mission that will keep him out of the country until just 36 hours before the House floor debate begins.

    Clinton was in international airspace as the final article of impeachment was approved at 2:45 p.m., leaving downcast aides to rise to his defense after huddling in a strategy session in White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta's office, where they resolved to take a more aggressive approach.

    Craig emerged to tell reporters on the White House driveway that impeachment will "divide the country [and] gridlock the government," complaining, "Nothing about this process has been fair. Nothing about this process has been bipartisan."

    In a later telephone interview, Craig telegraphed the White House strategy for the coming days as he stressed the consequences of prolonging a political crisis that has turned off the country, if the House votes to impeach instead of passing a censure resolution. "The real question," he said, "is whether the public interest is better served by a bipartisan vote of censure that ends it all this week or a partisan impeachment trial that starts up again next year."

    Committee Republicans fired back with a statement contrasting the confrontational tone with Clinton's professed contrition in his Rose Garden apology on Friday. "By returning to the war room politics of partisan attacks, the White House undermines the sincerity and credibility of the president's words," said spokesman Paul J. McNulty.

    Livingston's decision to prevent a censure vote came just hours after a plea by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who wrote that the issue would determine whether this becomes "a purely political exercise or a high-minded debate on the impeachment of a president."

    But Republicans were clearly prepared to undercut the censure drive, orchestrating a succession of quick letters following the close of the committee's business at 6:20 p.m. Within minutes, Hyde sent Livingston a letter asserting that even consideration of censure "violates the rules of the House." Livingston followed shortly with his letter, which then led to a third by outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) announcing his concurrence and plans to reconvene the House on Thursday.

    Talking with reporters during an appearance in Louisiana yesterday, Livingston made clear that Clinton's latest speech had not altered the political equation in the GOP caucus. "I've seen the reaction of some of my colleagues in Washington and especially of those on the Judiciary Committee and it doesn't appear to have made a difference," Livingston said.

    Both sides are focused intently on the handful of undecided Republican centrists. Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.) yesterday became the latest to declare that he would vote to impeach Clinton, pronouncing himself disappointed with Clinton's new statement because he did not admit lying. "He didn't think the statement broke any new ground," said Walsh spokesman James H. O'Connor.

    With Walsh's decision, seven of the 34 moderate Republicans identified by the White House and Democratic congressional leaders last week as undecided have now indicated that they will support impeachment, with none coming out in opposition.

    Although Clinton will not be able to participate while overseas, aides said the White House plans a vigorous lobbying campaign in the next few days, inviting undecided members to meet with Craig or White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff to hear their defense against the charges. After weeks of avoiding the television talk show circuit, both Craig and Podesta are hitting the airwaves this weekend in hopes of stirring outrage among a public that has indicated its impatience with the impeachment inquiry.

    A few prominent moderate Republicans have come to Clinton's assistance as well. New York Gov. George E. Pataki announced that he opposes impeachment. And former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld is calling House Republicans.

    Judiciary Democrats plan to make television appearances targeted at key Republican districts to mobilize voters to call their representatives. But they held out little hope. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he will "sit down quietly" with a few Republican friends, although he added, "I wonder how much it matters for Democrats to lobby moderate Republicans."

    The votes yesterday in the Rayburn House Office Building completed the committee's inquiry and marked only the third time lawmakers have approved articles of impeachment calling for the removal of a president. Articles I, II and III, which were passed on Friday, accuse Clinton of perjury before a grand jury, perjury in the Paula Jones lawsuit and obstruction of justice, all in an effort to hide his extramarital fling with former intern Lewinsky.

    As originally drafted, Article IV alleged that Clinton abused his power by "using the attributes of office" to lie about his affair to the country, to his Cabinet and to the Congress and to "frivolously and corruptly" assert executive privilege to stymie independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation.

    But a number of committee Republicans, including Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio), George W. Gekas (Pa.), Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and Ed Pease (Ind.), questioned whether all of those charges were warranted, particularly the executive privilege claim. Several Republicans were swayed in part by Ruff, who testified last week that Clinton asserted the privilege on the advice of White House lawyers.

    "I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning and I went in there voting against Article IV," said Hutchinson, who emphasized that it had been written by staff attorneys. "It had never been debated. The members never voted on Article IV."

    So during closed-door consultations before the committee got underway at 9:40 a.m. yesterday, Republicans decided to jettison everything except the charge that Clinton provided "perjurious, false and misleading sworn statements" in response to 81 questions submitted by the committee last month as part of its inquiry.

    Several Republicans said that by highlighting another series of alleged false statements Clinton made under oath, they were making a stronger case to the American public. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) said he and his colleagues were careful not to be perceived as "piling on."

    "The best case to be presented is the shortest, clearest and easiest," Rogan said. Clinton's lies to the public and his advisers constituted an abuse of power, he added, but "heinous as they were, would not have added anything to the mix."

    Democrats welcomed the move, but said it did not go far enough. The amendment to strip those charges, said Schumer, simply made the process the "theater of the slightly less absurd."

    The Republican amendment, offered by Gekas, passed 29 to 5, with three Democrats voting present: Barney Frank (Mass.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Martin T. Meehan (Mass.). Voting no were Republican Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah) and Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.), Maxine Waters (Calif.), Robert Wexler (Fla.) and Thomas M. Barrett (Wis.).

    In accusing Clinton of lying under oath to the committee, Republicans cited his answers to 10 of the 81 questions, picking out responses in which the president repeated or defended previous testimony from his Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case and his Aug. 17 appearance before Starr's grand jury.

    Among other things, in those answers Clinton denied telling his secretary Betty Currie to retrieve gifts from Lewinsky to evade a Jones subpoena; reaffirmed his belief that Lewinsky's affidavit denying a sexual relationship could be considered true because they never had intercourse; and insisted that in January he recalled that Lewinsky had given him only a book or two and a tie, despite her 30 or so gifts over the course of their relationship.

    Committee members, however, spent little time analyzing the answers and instead dwelled on the implications of their actions over the last two days. Several talked in deeply personal terms. "I approach this, my friends, with a very heavy heart," said Coble, comparing "the knots in my gut" to those when he voted to authorize the Persian Gulf War. Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) said he could not sleep Friday night and went for a 2 a.m. jog on the Mall. This debate, he said, "is not easy."

    Democrats, though, assailed Hyde and other Republicans for appearing to minimize the significance of the votes as merely accusation rather than final judgment on the theory that they were not voting to remove the president but leaving it to the Senate.

    Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) lashed out, saying the Republican move to drive the president from office has taken on "the appearance of a coup," adding, "It's frightening, it's staggering. This is not in a developing country."

    Republicans bristled. "This is not a legislative coup d'etat," countered Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). "This is a constitutional process."

    After the article passed, the panel took up the censure proposal endorsed by the White House. Although expressing his own "deep disdain for the president's actions," the resolution's author, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), said a reprimand was the commensurate response.

    Republicans dismissed it out of hand. "This is a toothless resolution," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). "I believe censure is a cop-out," added Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.).

    After 3½ hours of debate, it was rejected at 6:10 p.m., 22 to 14. Waters voted present and Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) joined all 21 Republicans in voting no.


    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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