Restraint Precedes Party-Line Vote
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 6, 1998; A7
The stage was set for political conflict and high drama. But for most of yesterday, the proceedings of the House Judiciary Committee seemed so restrained that it was sometimes easy to forget the wrenching nature of the subject at hand: the removal of a president from office.
Committee Republicans and Democrats, renowned in the House for their sharp ideological divisions, sparred and probed cautiously, like boxers in the early rounds of a heavyweight match. It was as if the Judiciary Committee were going out of its way to be judicial, as the nation and world measured its ability to assume its awesome responsibility without sinking to rank partisanship.
There were only occasional flurries that gave clues to the partisan passions lurking below the decorous surface. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), 37, an outspoken opponent of impeachment, drew a round of boisterous hand-clapping from fellow committee Democrats after an emotional speech in which he pleaded with the panel "to end this nonsense."
"This may be the biggest news story in which we will ever play a part," said Wexler, his voice cracking. "But God help the nation if this is the most important work we will ever do in Congress."
The outburst of applause brought a gentle scolding from Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). Thereafter, the Democrats settled into restrained demeanor for the rest of the day.
On the Republican side, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a provocative firebrand who has been demanding impeachment for a year, was in his best attack-dog mode. "We are witnessing nothing less than the symptoms of a cancer on the American presidency," he said. "If we fail to remove it, it will expand to destroy the principles that matter most to all of us. ... If we stand by while the president obstructs justice and destroys his enemies, our entire government will be contaminated with cynical disdain."
Others got in their licks, as well. Republican Reps. Steve Buyer (Ind.), and Chris Cannon (Utah), voiced their disgust at allegations that Monica S. Lewinsky performed a sex act on Clinton while he took a call from a member of Congress on the issue of sending U.S. troops to Bosnia.
Buyer, a reserve Army lawyer who served during the Persian Gulf War, noted in regard to Clinton's affair with a White House intern that "in the military, even a consensual relationship between a superior and a subordinate is unacceptable behavior, prejudicial to good order and discipline."
But many of the 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats appeared to be addressing the broad American public more than their political and ideological core supporters. At least for now, those members suggested, they are keeping an open mind on the question of whether President Clinton committed impeachable offenses.
"The truth is I have no clue what I am going to do," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a maverick conservative from a district where 82 percent of voters favor impeachment. "Is this Watergate or 'Peyton Place'? I don't know," he added.
Near the end of the morning session, as the opening statements wound down, Graham lifted the panel's somber mood, remarking that "the good news is me and [the committee's junior Republican member, Rep.] Mary Bono [Calif.] stand between lunch, and we'll try to get through this thing."
Here and there, members displayed some of the tart-tongued wit and debating skills for which the committee of 34 lawyers and only three non-lawyers is well known.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) summoned Pirandello to reprise for a wider television audience an earlier put-down of the GOP for forcing reams of pornographic documents down America's collective throat in hopes of finally changing America's collective mind: "Let us not turn this into an impeachment inquiry in search of a high crime," he said.
Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) repeated references to Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," recalling how the red queen first demands "off with her head" and then holds a trial for Alice. The underlying message, expressed frequently by most of the committee's black members: that Clinton risked a lynching at the hands of GOP conservatives.
"Ours is a nation that should not accept second-class justice for any American, be he or she president or citizen," noted Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), taking a direct approach. "Americans should never return to the time when some were held as chattel and others could not vote or hold property."
To underline the seriousness with which they approached their task, members trotted out historical references galore. Republicans and Democrats summoned the writings and remarks of Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and others to buttress contradictory understandings of the criteria for an impeachable offense. Hamilton, one observer suggested, was cited more often than Linda Tripp.
Despite the restraint that was in evidence, the canyon separating the two parties became apparent early. Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) made clear he would vote for impeachment if perjury were proven. "I don't know if the president committed these crimes of perjury, but if he did, they alone, it seems to me, would merit impeachment and removal from office," he said.
But Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), following McCollum, drew the opposite conclusion. "I believe that, given the evidence before us, the only charge possible against the president is that he lied to the grand jury and at the deposition about his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky," Schumer said. "That crime does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors cited in the Constitution."
These conflicting views were echoed by chief investigative counsel David P. Schippers, for the Republicans, and Abbe D. Lowell, chief investigative counsel for the Democrats. The white-bearded, grandfatherly, slightly rumpled Schippers emerged yesterday as a personality to be reckoned with in his own right, even while serving on the committee's professional staff.
Setting aside his staff role, Schippers made a statement as a "citizen" in which he admonished the panel that "15 generations of Americans . . . are looking down on and judging what you do today."
Hyde expunged this digression from the record at the Democrats' behest. The younger Lowell, clean-cut in a white shirt, attacked both the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and Schippers's report. He received approving nods from Democrats. But Lowell's legal arguments, delivered with the precision of a debater in moot court, were greeted with yawns from the GOP side.
In fact, by the time the serious debate began, several members could be seen squinting to keep their eyes open. Others looked like they had headaches and several on both sides had turned off their microphones and were having animated conversations with those seated next to them.
By the time the straight party-line vote approving the Republican resolution came, everyone seemed ready to go home. Hyde ended the session just before 8 p.m., urging all to show up today for a committee photograph for his office.
"What's the dress code?" asked ranking minority member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) as the gavel fell.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company