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Partisanship Carries the Day in Committee

Judiciary,TWP Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), left, and Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) listen to debate over Article IV during the Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings. (The Post)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page A1

    Perhaps it was inevitable that the House Judiciary Committee would finish its impeachment deliberations mired in unseemly partisan deadlock. Could ideological opposites ever hope to agree on "high crimes and misdemeanors," when the evidence was the fallout from a presidential sex scandal?

    But it was Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) himself who repeated countless times that the impeachment of President Clinton, as he said in a television interview in January, "has to elicit bipartisan support" or it is doomed. By that standard, the committee failed dismally.

    Yesterday, the committee finished its business by passing by a purely partisan vote a Republican article of impeachment charging Clinton with lying 10 times on a committee questionnaire. Then it killed by a nearly partisan vote a Democratic proposal for a resolution of censure.

    Now the committee has left the scene, and the audience is left to ponder the outcome. In the face of widespread opposition, not only from Democrats but from a majority of the American public, committee Republicans passed four articles of impeachment and sent them to the House floor, where a razor-thin majority of House Republicans will attempt to pass them this week.

    How did this happen?

    That the debate was partisan came as no surprise. "Given the cast, it's hard to see how the play could have turned out differently," said Claremont-McKenna political scientist John J. Pitney. "Judiciary is a highly partisan committee having a debate after a highly charged election. It was ordained the committee would play out this way."

    But American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein blamed the GOP leadership for setting the stage. By deciding in September to publish the report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sight unseen, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) forced a confrontation that didn't have to happen, Ornstein said. That most Democrats voted with the GOP made no difference.

    "They knew the Democrats would have to vote for it, and they put the Democrats on the defensive immediately," Ornstein said. "They tried from the get-go to exploit this for partisan advantage."

    The November elections brought losses for the GOP, virtually unheard of in an off-year, spelling the end of Gingrich's House career. But Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) has refused to take charge, and the decision on how to proceed was left entirely up to Hyde. According to Ornstein, Hyde dropped the ball.

    "If you're going to be bipartisan, you try to get some Democrats together with some Republicans to make them part of the decision-making process," Ornstein said. "It's incumbent on the majority to bend over backwards."

    The inclination was there. Committee Republicans Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Democrats William D. Delahunt (Mass.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) formed a working group to build a bipartisan bridge within the committee, "but that never works without encouragement from the top," Ornstein said. Hyde never gave it, and the working group was a non-factor.

    But once in committee, others said, Hyde had an almost impossible situation on his hands. "It was tough," Pitney said. "He's in the position of a dean of faculty whose job description is herding cats. He's done okay, but sometimes his exasperation shows."

    And with reason, Pitney added. During the Watergate hearings in 1974, the impeachment event against which all others are measured, "the overall quality of the committee was much better."

    The issues then were crime, civil rights and the judicial system, he said, and the committee drew members who were interested in blazing new trails. "Today you've got constitutional amendments, and a whole host of hot button issues" that draw ideologues from both parties.

    Also, noted political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, in 1974 "you had large numbers of truly liberal Republicans and southern Democrats" who had a lot in common and were able to work together.

    "Part of the grandeur of Watergate derived from the fact that it was able to be bipartisan," added University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato. "The Republicans were in awe of themselves by the fact that they were willing to cross the line and kill their own king."

    There was none of that this time around. Instead, there were lines in the sand. Sabato and others pointed to Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who drew a them-and-us distinction between those who believe "there is absolute truth" and those who believe "everything is relative."

    Or Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who implored "Wake up, America!" because articles of impeachment were going to be approved by an "elitist group" of committee Republicans that "has decided that they know better than you."

    At the beginning, Sabato said, Hyde didn't help. "He was awfully partisan, snappish and even mean," Sabato said. But by starting with rigorous rules on parliamentary procedure and then letting them slide, he was able to keep the debate moving while lightening the atmosphere with frequent quips.

    And his equanimity began to rub off on colleagues. Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), a smoldering volcano for much of the debate, on Friday began to ask Hyde that Republican members be given extra time to speak. And yesterday, rather than rise to a GOP provocation, Watt decided, "I better bite my tongue."

    And once again, yesterday, deep into a seemingly endless discussion of the House's responsibilities in the impeachment process, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of the hardest of the GOP hard-liners, was able to argue with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of the most liberal of the liberals, then remark on "something very historic today. Barney Frank and Bob Barr agree on something."

    No, riposted Hyde, "the historic aspect was Mr. Frank speaking slowly."

    "It's partly because the committee has been together so much, they've had the luxury of working through their feelings," Sabato said. "And besides, they were exhausted. And besides, they're politicians, so they are looking for common ground."

    But not finding it.

    This was partly the fault of the committee and its ideologies, but it was also the fault of Clinton, who inspired visceral feelings that needed expression. Mix that with political considerations on both sides, and there was little possibility of a meeting of minds.

    "For Republicans, the conviction is that Bill Clinton is fundamentally a bad man who committed crimes," Pitney said. "The politics is that the core [conservative] voters in the party want impeachment."

    The Democrats, he continued, displayed a "high and low" mix of a different sort. "The conviction is the argument that there has to be a very high level of evidence for a high-level, impeachable offense," he said. "The politics is they don't want to give the Republicans a victory even if they know that Clinton is guilty as sin."

    Democrats were also worried because they could get no reaction out of Livingston, while they knew Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), one of Clinton's strongest foes, was working to ensure that censure, the middle-ground way out, would never get a vote. With DeLay steering the headless House, the debate would be impeachment or nothing.

    As the committee got deeper into the debate, it began to lose its sense of proportion. "The Republicans were presenting Bill Clinton as one of history's great criminals," Sabato said. "The Democrats were presenting him as a wonderful human being with a human foible.

    "Neither side is right," he continued. "If he's a criminal at all, he's of the petty variety, and I have news for the Democrats, too. When the history is written of the 20th century, Bill Clinton is going to be a minor figure.

    "The debate never reached the grandeur of Watergate," Sabato concluded. "But Nixon's crimes were on the grand scale. Clinton is accused of sleazy, petty crimes, and it was inevitable that the committee would be covered with muck."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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