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Partisan Bitterness Infuses Historic Debate

Rep. Alcee Hastings, left, talks with Abbe Lowell Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), left, talks with Abbe Lowell, Democratic Counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, on the way to the House debate. (Ray Lustig — The Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A1

    The House of Representatives kept an "appointment with history" yesterday as lawmakers debated whether to impeach a president for the first time in 130 years and split sharply along party lines about whether the ultimate constitutional punishment fits the nature of President Clinton's alleged crimes.

    On a day that once seemed unthinkable for a chief executive who remains popular with the public, Republicans declared that Clinton must be impeached because he has "corrupted the rule of law" and they appeared to have the votes to enforce that judgment when the House acts today. Resigned to defeat even before the debate began, Democrats objected vainly but vociferously to what they deemed a "partisan coup d'etat."

    "That oath [of office] constituted a compact between the president and the American people," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), whose panel approved four articles of impeachment last week alleging perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. "That compact has been broken. The people's trust has been betrayed."

    Democrats countered that Republicans have lost all sense of proportion, arguing that expelling Clinton for lying about an affair with a former White House intern would lower the bar and endanger all future presidents. "Monica Lewinsky is not Watergate," said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "Let he who has no sin in this chamber cast the first vote."

    The 12 hours of rhetoric echoing through the ornate room where President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 replayed the arguments laid forth in the Judiciary Committee last week and, with the outcome clear for days, the shock of what was happening faded for many into a sense of numb realization.

    But the extraordinary lame-duck House session took place against an equally extraordinary backdrop as U.S. military forces launched their third day of Clinton-ordered airstrikes on Iraq and lawmakers buzzed in backrooms about their speaker-designate's revelation of his own marital infidelity.

    "There is great turmoil and angst on the floor today," said Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.).

    On the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Clinton kept publicly mum even as his fate was being decided. While the president met with Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), one of the last undeclared Republicans, he spent much of the rest of the day conferring with European leaders and attending a meeting about AIDS.

    He left it to aides to lash out at what they called a "cynical political strategy" by Republicans to take down a Democratic president. An increasingly aggressive Vice President Gore declared himself "fighting mad" at what was happening and called it "dead wrong." Yet in contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton broke her own months-long silence with a more conciliatory message, imploring Washington "to bring our country together . . . [and] end divisiveness."

    The first lady will travel to Capitol Hill this morning to meet with the Democratic caucus at the members' request. But her visit will be aimed more at thanking lawmakers for their effort than rallying them for a final stand.

    Assuming the worst, Democrats last night planned a walkout on the floor for this morning to protest their expected defeat in trying to force the House to consider censuring the president rather than impeaching him. And after the impeachment vote, Democratic leaders will appear with Clinton at the White House as he offers his first public response to what they presume will be the most devastating defeat of his career.

    By the end of yesterday's marathon session, there were not enough uncommitted votes left for Clinton to stave off impeachment unless some members change their minds overnight. Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.) joined the tiny GOP faction opposing impeachment, but key swing Republicans Jay Dickey (Ark.), Ed Whitfield (Ky.) and Jim Gibbons (Nev.) went the other way.

    Indeed, in a signal of surrender, Democrats abandoned plans to fly in one of their own, George Miller (Calif.), who recently underwent hip surgery but had agreed to come to Washington if his vote was needed.

    "The man in the White House cannot win in this time frame, with these people," said retiring Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.). "They can't abide Bill Clinton."

    Joining the impeachment bandwagon yesterday was one of Clinton's predecessors. Gerald R. Ford, who rose to the presidency after Richard M. Nixon resigned rather than face a House impeachment vote, had advanced his own proposal to avert such a fate for Clinton by censuring him instead. But yesterday he said such a compromise was no longer viable because Clinton refuses to acknowledge he lied under oath.

    "If the president will not forthrightly admit that he perjured himself, I would vote for impeachment," Ford said in a telephone interview. Ford noted that he talked with White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, but was told in no uncertain terms that Clinton would never make such a confession. "They are adamant. He will not admit that he did perjure himself. That's very critical to me."

    Another censure advocate, Robert J. Dole, also said he would vote for impeachment, according to Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.), who reported speaking with the former senator. But Dole, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Clinton in 1996, appeared to still be working for a censure deal in the Senate, speaking with Clinton in recent days and yesterday with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), according to sources.

    Dole sent a letter endorsing the decision by Republican leaders to go ahead with the impeachment debate even while U.S. troops were engaged in hostilities in the Persian Gulf region, saying it was "entirely appropriate" to proceed.

    That timing was a flash point when the House convened at 9 a.m. yesterday, as Democrats renewed their complaint that impeachment should have been postponed until after hostilities end. With 24,000 pilots, sailors and other service members in harm's way, they argued, proceeding with the debate would undercut troop morale and they tried unsuccessfully to adjourn the session in protest.

    One Democrat went so far as to accuse Republican leaders of aiding and abetting the enemy, perhaps emboldening Saddam Hussein to resist longer and therefore risk more U.S. casualties. "The majority may well have blood on its hands by starting this proceeding today," said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.).

    Hyde and other Republicans rejected the grievance, noting that impeachment proceedings were held against Nixon while U.S. troops were still in Vietnam. "We felt the quicker we could go ahead, the sooner we could show the world that our democracy works," Hyde said, triggering derisive noise from the Democratic side of the chamber.

    The day's events traced their origin to an 18-month on-and-off affair between Clinton and Lewinsky that came to the attention of the lawyers for Paula Jones who were pursuing a sexual harassment case against the president. In January, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation began.

    From there, the marital lapse mushroomed into legal proceedings and eventually the four articles of impeachment accusing Clinton of committing perjury when asked about Lewinsky during the Jones case and again before Starr's grand jury, obstruction of justice for tampering with witnesses and trying to hide evidence and abuse of power for lying under oath in response to the Judiciary Committee's written questions.

    The two perjury articles appear to have the most support, while it remained less clear whether obstruction of justice and abuse of power allegations will pass when the House resumes this morning. If the House approves any article by a simple majority, it would be sent to the Senate for a trial in which Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would serve as presiding officer and the senators would sit as jurors. Under the Constitution, it requires a two-thirds vote to convict the president and expel him from office, a threshold few believe could be met.

    Before the articles are put to a vote, Democrats plan to try to force consideration of a censure resolution, a move they expect to lose. But they used much of yesterday's debate to excoriate Republican leaders for not allowing the proposal to come to a vote.

    The debate focused little attention on the specific evidence assembled by Starr and instead concentrated on whether it rose to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Through grandiloquent oratory that stretched from 10 in the morning until 10 in the evening, 261 members spoke their minds and invoked everyone from Alexander Hamilton and Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Hyde himself cited the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence as he opened what he called "our appointment with history."

    But the public galleries gave little indication of the momentous proceedings underway. As the session opened, only half of the seats open to the general public were filled and many other galleries reserved for dignitaries were vacant. Lined up outside were people who wanted to get in, but were unable to witness the most unique congressional debate of their lifetimes.

    At Starr's office, at least, they were watching avidly. Starr and his lawyers tuned in to television coverage of much of the debate, recognizing that they could be called on as witnesses or to answer questions in the event of a Senate trial, according to Starr spokesman Charles G. Bakaly III.

    What they saw would have sounded familiar. As they have for months, Republicans maintained that the case was not about sex, but about a calculated effort to thwart the judicial system. Democrats did not defend Clinton's actions and few even suggested he did not do what Republicans charged; instead they maintained his sins were deserving of rebuke, not removal.

    With most having already announced their positions, there were no real surprises as members took sides. Democrats almost to a one stuck with Clinton and Republicans just as uniformly decried him. Democratic Reps. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) and Paul McHale (Pa.) broke party ranks to speak out for impeachment, while GOP Reps. Peter T. King (N.Y.) and Morella sided with Clinton.

    While Clinton allies actively tried to lobby moderates, they scored few victories. As one moderate explained, "The problem is the White House didn't know our people." This lawmaker said a friend offered to have the president call him. "He hasn't called me in six years. He doesn't know who I am. His wife knows who I am," the lawmaker said. "I go through the receiving line, and his eyes glaze over."

    A subtext of the day's discussion was the disclosure by Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) the night before that he had "on occasion strayed from my marriage." Livingston's admission came after he was contacted by Hustler magazine, which had offered $1 million to anyone who would come forward to claim an extramarital affair with a member of Congress.

    Republicans fumed that Livingston was targeted because of the impeachment debate and distinguished his admitted affairs from the allegations that Clinton lied under oath. Democrats were buzzing about the Livingston case too, seeing it as a perfect metaphor for what they believe is the hypocrisy of passing judgment on Clinton for personal weaknesses.

    But the chief House Democrat, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), implicitly reached out to Livingston without naming him during a floor speech, generating the day's only standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

    "The events of the last days sadden me," Gephardt said somberly in a reference lost on no one. "We are now at the height of a cycle of negative attacks, character assassination, personal smears of good people, decent people, worthy people. ... The politics of smear and slash-and-burn must end."

    Having given up the right to preside even before his own scandal erupted, Livingston sat in the middle of the chamber, his hands folded, his face impassive. As the day went on, though, fellow Republicans made sure to find him on the floor to shake his hand and offer their support. And the man Livingston turned the gavel over to, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), admonished the chamber to avoid "personally abusive language" and comparisons between the president's alleged actions and those of any member, drawing hoots from some Democrats.

    Notwithstanding LaHood's warning, though, Democrats found ways to bring up the matter. "Let me tell you, this chamber is full of sinners," said Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who denounced unnamed "hypocrites" for this "silly and stupid debate."

    Brown was one of a half-dozen Democrats who used the term "coup d'etat." Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, who managed his party's side of the debate, said he was witnessing a "Republican coup d'etat in process" and declared that "impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up extramarital affairs."

    Republicans rankled at the charges of politics, noting that even if Clinton does leave office, it only installs Gore, not Dole. Rep. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) said that if lawmakers decide to condone perjury and obstruction of justice, they become complicit.

    "If we do not stand up for what is right and do what is required under the Constitution, we become part of what is wrong," Talent said. I'm not going to vote for the articles because I want to. I see no other honorable alternative."

    If impeachment is approved, Hyde said he plans to appoint 13 Judiciary Committee members as managers for the Senate trial. Although he did not name the lawmakers, sources said the list was likely to include senior members of the panel such as Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Bill McCollum (Fla.), as well as more junior ones including Reps. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and James E. Rogan (Calif.).

    As for the White House, aides were preparing for the next stage when they expect pressure to build on Clinton to resign to avoid putting the country through the ordeal of a prolonged Senate trial. Even before the House votes today, a pair of Democrats, Reps. Louise Slaughter (N.Y.) and William O. Lipinski (Ill.), suggested Clinton should consider resigning if he is impeached.

    On Clinton's behalf, Gore tried to firmly quash such talk. "I think the results of a meteor strike are more likely than the resignation of the president," he said on a radio show. "He is just not going to do that."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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