Partisanship to Mark Impeachment Debate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 1998; Page A01
The House Judiciary Committee begins moving today toward the third presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history with the grim certainty that what both sides agree should be an exercise in civic majesty will instead be an unseemly partisan battle royal.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) warned GOP colleagues at a closed meeting late last week to expect the worst from Democrats when the panel meets this morning to consider the impeachment of President Clinton for alleged perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and other possible crimes stemming from his extramarital relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
"I have made great overtures to my Democratic colleagues," Hyde said later, "but unfortunately, I am sad to say I have not seen a willingness on their part to meet me anywhere close to halfway."
Committee Democrats contend that Republicans have repeatedly gone back on their word, starting with the publication of thousands of pages of documents submitted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr with little or no prior review: "Everything we have done up to now," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), "has been done by the Republicans for public consumption."
Depending on the length of the debate, the committee today or Tuesday is likely to approve a resolution proposed by the panel's Republican majority to recommend to the full House that it open a formal impeachment inquiry.
The full House vote on the committee resolution will come Thursday or Friday. Assuming approval, that vote will authorize the committee to begin the formal inquiry, probably including public hearings, shortly after Election Day Nov. 3. At the end of that inquiry, the committee could recommend specific articles of impeachment against the president. That recommendation would again be sent to the full House, which would have to approve it before sending the case to the Senate for an impeachment trial. After the trial, a two-thirds vote by the Senate is required to remove the president from office.
Committee Democrats have countered the Republican resolution with a two-phase proposal beginning with a preliminary hearing to develop a standard for an impeachable offense and ending at the latest Nov. 25, should the House need to vote on articles of impeachment.
An informal poll of the committee members suggests that while one or two Democrats may vote for the Republican proposal, the likeliest outcome of today's committee meeting is that no one from either party will support the other's resolution.
This will occur even though the two sides are not far apart on at least two critical issues. Republicans have agreed to hold a hearing on standards of impeachment as part of the inquiry, while Democrats want the hearing before the inquiry. And on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday, Hyde said "it's my hope and prayer" that "we finish by New Year's," only six weeks later than the Democrats' deadline.
But House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) noted on ABC's "This Week" that "New Year's resolutions sometimes get broken." And such is level of mistrust on the committee that Judiciary member Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) told reporters last week that while "I have the greatest respect for Mr. Hyde," his word was not good enough, because "frankly we seem to be hearing from more voices than his," an apparent reference to the GOP leadership.
Passage of the Republican proposal by the full House later this week is a foregone conclusion, but the key question is how many Democrats will vote for it. A large number would vindicate the Republicans' belief that the nation demands a thorough investigation of the Lewinsky case. A small number will support the Judiciary Democrats' contention that GOP conservatives are leading a "witch hunt" against a popular president.
The Clinton administration would like no resolution at all, but in a 37-page brief forwarded to the committee late last week made clear its preference for a proceeding like that outlined in the Democratic alternative.
Both White House and House Democratic sources made clear, however, that what the administration wants has little effect on how the Democrats shape their strategy: The administration "has no leverage," said one source, and above all "the administration doesn't want to be seen as heavy-handed."
Even with the White House playing the role of hand-wringing bystander, however, a divided committee and a bitter partisan struggle on the House floor will be bad news for anyone hoping for a statesman-like proceeding.
The consequences, warned Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), could be both far-reaching and disastrous: "If it is not seen to be fair, if it is not obviously bipartisan and obviously fair, you risk what we don't want," Nadler said at a recent news conference. "You risk a two-year politicized fishing expedition, and you risk the result not being accepted by the American people and being the cause of recriminations in our politics for the next generation."
Today's meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in closed session in the committee's Rayburn House Office Building chamber beneath the portraits of Hyde and former chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), who oversaw the hearings that returned three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.
The committee's first vote -- and probably the last unanimous vote of the day -- will be to open the meeting to the public. Each of the 37 panelists will deliver a five-minute opening statement -- a process that will take most of the morning.
Then the members will hear the chief investigators for the majority and minority brief them on the contents of the Starr report. It is here that the two parties are expected to lay out their respective positions on the evidence.
Republican sources said chief GOP investigator David Schippers will begin with a discussion of the president's constitutional powers in American law, the importance of the oath of office, and, finally, the importance of taking an oath before any judicial proceeding.
Schippers will use this argument as he discusses each of Starr's 11 possible grounds for impeachment. In addition to accusations of perjury, obstruction of justice and misuse of power, however, he will suggest new accusations under the rubric of "making false statements under oath," a milder offense than perjury and not necessarily criminal. He may name Lewinsky as a co-conspirator.
GOP sources said Schippers will stress that the "grounds" are accusations only "of crimes that may have been committed and that may constitute grounds for impeachment." He will explain that he instructed his investigators "to review this material in a light most favorable to the president."
Minority chief investigator Abbe D. Lowell will then speak for the Democrats, focusing on the gravity of impeachment in the constitutional context of treason, bribery and other "high crimes and misdemeanors."
He will contrast this menu with the list of transgressions alleged against Clinton and suggest that extramarital involvement with a White House intern does not rise to the standard envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
Whether the votes on the resolutions are taken today or Tuesday will depend on the length of the stormy debate that is expected to follow: "I think we can expect a long day," Hyde said on "Meet the Press."
For the Democrats, the debate will be a dress rehearsal for the arguments they will take to the floor later in the week, and to the public as the current midterm election campaign reaches its closing crescendo.
They will say that it makes no sense to hold an impeachment inquiry before the committee has determined whether -- even if all were to agree all of the allegations are true -- any of it rises to an impeachable offense. "This [the GOP plan] makes about as much sense as in Alice in Wonderland where they sentenced first and then had a trial," said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), comparing the House GOP to Lewis Carroll's red queen.
They will also tout the merits of a short timetable and a narrow scope that confines the inquiry to the Lewinsky matter. The point they will stress, as they have for weeks, is that Americans want the committee to "end this now," as Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), Judiciary's ranking Democrat, said on "Meet the Press." "They never want to hear the name Lewinsky for the rest of their collective lives."
Both Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Gephardt have described the floor vote as a "vote of conscience" and said they will not actively whip their members to vote a certain way. But assuming the GOP resolution is the one House members will be voting on, the Democratic alternative is also likely to get a rehearing on the House floor. Sources said the leadership will urge Judiciary Democrats to promote it as a positive measure that colleagues can support, while portraying the Republican resolution as a ploy to drag out the investigation beyond what the public will tolerate.
Still, one source acknowledged that "Gephardt's main desire is to protect those members who have tough races. There are members who are restless, who are coming to him, and Gephardt has made it clear that nobody falls on his sword for Bill Clinton."
Thus, everyone believes that a certain number of Democrats will defect in the floor vote. Republicans are hoping for a high number, to prove their point that Judiciary Committee Democrats are far further left than the party at large.
Rep. Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), a member of Gingrich's leadership team, estimated the resolution will receive "as many as 100 Democratic votes," and Hyde said on "Meet the Press" that he had heard estimates ranging from 25 to 100.
Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), one of only two Democrats to have called for Clinton's resignation and the source for the estimate of 25, said his guess was based on "nothing more than intuition." He predicted that if the leadership didn't "twist arms," as many as 50 could defect.
Still, said Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (Calif.), "There's a lot of discussion, and I think there is an increasing unhappiness with the way the Republicans are going for anything they can, and that has a tendency to unify the caucus. But where that leads us is still unclear."
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