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Panel Signals It Will Pursue Impeachment

Impeachment proceedings Father Robert Drinan, a former congressman who served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, testifies at Monday's hearing. (AP)

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  • By Ruth Marcus
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, November 10, 1998; Page A01

    Meeting for the first time since GOP setbacks in last Tuesday's elections, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday strongly indicated they still plan to move forward with impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

    "God, I'd like to forget all of this. I mean, who needs it?" said Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), as the panel met to hear from constitutional experts about the standards for impeaching a president. "We paid attention to the polls and the elections."

    But, Hyde said, "I'm frightened for the rule of law. . . . I really believe that notion that no man is above the law." He condemned "all of the sophistries that I hear, rationales, justifications -- 'Everybody does it. It was just about sex.' "

    In the wake of the GOP's poor showing in last week's elections and the continuing large majority of Americans who say they would like Congress simply to drop the subject of Clinton's alleged misconduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter, the president's prospects for avoiding impeachment seemed significantly improved.

    But committee Republicans yesterday appeared more energized than chastened, despite their party's five-seat House loss and the conclusion by strategists in both parties that the GOP may want to consider an "exit strategy" for an investigation that may have backfired politically.

    "I think the election probably affected the disposition in the Senate more than it did anything here," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said outside the hearing room.

    "I do not see any change in mood," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). They are two of the key Republican members of an informal "breakfast club" on Judiciary, a bipartisan group that has discussed the possibility of a solution short of impeachment.

    Democrats who had hoped yesterday's session might mark the start of a new, more conciliatory attitude by the GOP were disappointed. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said Republicans "haven't read the election results" and that it was "quite likely" the committee would vote out articles of impeachment.

    In comments outside the hearing, several Republicans said they did not think disciplinary measures short of impeachment, such as censure, would be appropriate, and some of the experts who testified yesterday said they saw constitutional problems with that approach.

    "I don't think censure is a possibility," said Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.). "Either we proceed or we do not." Hutchinson expressed similar reservations. "The options are limited constitutionally," he said.

    Opening the daylong constitutional law seminar, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) was biting in his assessment of Clinton's conduct and the arguments by the president's supporters that, however reprehensible, it did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

    "Obstruction of justice and lying under oath by a president inevitably subvert the respect for law which is essential to the well-being of our constitutional system," said Canady, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.

    A president who engages in such behavior, Canady said, "must be called to account for setting a dangerous example of lawlessness and corruption. He must be called to account for subverting the respect for law, which is the foundation of our Constitution."

    Graham said he was inclined not to support articles of impeachment for Clinton's testimony at his deposition by Paula Jones's lawyers, but that the president's testimony before the grand jury was "a good candidate for an article of impeachment."

    The subcommittee's ranking member, Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.), warned against "doing irreparable harm to our system of government by establishing a dangerous and partisan 'impeach at will' precedent that will forever weaken the institution of the presidency."

    Moreover, he said, "The American people have now clearly told us that it is time to move on."

    Members looking for guidance about whether Clinton's misconduct warrants impeachment -- -or, perhaps more likely, to buttress their already stated positions -- had an array of choices yesterday.

    The panel of experts was divided among those who argued that Clinton's alleged conduct could easily justify impeachment and those who said it fell far short of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they envisioned removing a president from office for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." Ten of the 19 who testified represented the Republican side, eight the Democratic approach, and one -- William and Mary law professor Michael Gerhardt -- was a "shared" witness.

    Former Reagan Justice Department official Charles Cooper said Clinton's actions are "not at the fringe" of high crimes and misdemeanors. "They're at the core of it."

    Responding to the argument that Clinton's alleged lies were less serious because they involved private sexual matters, Northwestern University law professor Stephen Presser said, "No person, and least of all no president . . . can pick and choose over which matters he will be truthful and over which he will not."

    But Georgetown University law professor Susan Low Bloch said it would be a "dangerous and frightening prospect" to remove a president for such actions. University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein warned that using "the very heavy artillery of impeachment" to go after Clinton would expose many future presidents to such attacks and end the "tradition of mutual arms control" that has greatly limited the use of impeachment.

    Experts on both sides expressed concerns about the constitutionality of censuring the president in some way and, in particular, imposing some kind of fine on him.

    "In light of the founders' concern that the president not be subjected to political molestation by Congress, it cannot be emphasized too strongly that impeachment is the only means granted to Congress to censure the president," said University of London professor Gary McDowell, a GOP witness. "It is either impeachment or nothing."

    Georgetown University law professor Rev. Robert Drinan, a former Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, agreed that censure "would establish a dangerous precedent. . . . Almost every election cycle we would have the Congress censuring the president if he were of a different party."

    But Gerhardt said censure "has a textual, historical pedigree." He said two presidents -- Andrew Jackson and James Polk -- and five judges have faced censure votes.

    The lawmakers also talked about whether the House could conclude that Clinton had committed impeachable offenses yet choose not to impeach him. Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.) got GOP panel members McDowell and Yeshiva University law professor John McGinnis to agree that the House could decide not to proceed.

    Duke University law professor William Van Alstyne, also a GOP witness, agreed. The House has the "political discretion to express its dismay, disappointment, recrimination, and still conclude it is not appropriate to take up the time of the Senate," he said.

    But George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said that were the House to conclude that Clinton committed impeachable offenses, "the role at that point should be the submission to the Senate. . . . It would be an enormous mistake for this matter to end in the House with some form of extra-constitutional means like censure."

    Harvard University law professor Laurence H. Tribe disagreed, saying it is a "fallacy to conclude that you have to pass the buck to the Senate."

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