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The Bitterness of Being in the Minority

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Edward Walsh
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A27

    For 40 uninterrupted years Democrats controlled all the levers of power in the House and did not hesitate to use that power to work their will.

    But yesterday, with the fate of a president of their own party at stake, House Democrats could only watch helplessly as the Republican majority hurtled toward the all but certain impeachment of President Clinton in what the Democrats repeatedly characterized as a legislative coup d'etat against the elected chief executive.

    Early yesterday morning they caucused in the Cannon House Office Building, quickly agreeing on the main Democratic themes for the day: the "unfairness" of the Republican majority not allowing a vote to censure Clinton as an alternative to impeachment, and "the context" of the historic debate, coming as the United States was taking military action against Iraq.

    When the House convened, the Democrats engaged in the kind of minor and hopeless parliamentary skirmishing that was for so long the province of the GOP. They made a motion to adjourn even before the debate began. It was easily slapped down on a party-line vote, but served a purpose. "We wanted the Republicans on record as moving forward to remove the commander in chief in wartime," said a Democratic aide.

    And so hours of debate began, with the Democrats accusing the Republicans of "trampling the Constitution" in the drive to remove Clinton and appealing to a sense of patriotism at a time of armed conflict.

    On television it had the look of a normal legislative session, but off the floor in the Speaker's Lobby, the raw emotions of the Democrats sometimes spilled out. Early in the debate, Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of the most voracious advocates of impeachment, quoted President John F. Kennedy.

    This enraged the late president's nephew, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.), who denounced the sight of "a racist quoting my uncle, a racist like Bob Barr." It was a reference to recent reports that Barr earlier this year spoke to a southern conservative organization, some of whose leaders promote racial segregation.

    Later in the Speaker's Lobby, according to eyewitnesses, Kennedy and Barr had a tense confrontation after Kennedy told the Republican he had "no right invoking my uncle's name."

    "You're wrong," Barr said. "You say what you like, young man, you do what you like."

    "I'm a duly elected member of my state," Kennedy replied stiffly.

    "Oh, I'm impressed, I'm duly impressed," Barr said.

    Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a 28-year House veteran, openly worried about the atmosphere in the next Congress that will convene in January. "Friendships have been broken in this House today," he said. "There are a lot of Republicans who know this is wrong. . . . This is a cloud on the House and I don't see how after the vote that suddenly the doors will be thrown open."

    "If this was a Third World country, we would call this a coup d'etat," said Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.). The heated Democratic rhetoric on the floor would not change the outcome, he acknowledged, but "sometimes you just have to make your statement for history."

    Under House rules, after the first hour of yesterday's debate, Democrats could have demanded an immediate vote on the four articles of impeachment, possibly cutting off the process abruptly at that point. But they chose not to do that, preferring to make their case against impeachment.

    "The Republican leadership obviously is determined to go ahead with this and therefore it is important that we make our points," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

    Hoyer is emblematic of many House Democrats from strongly Democratic areas. He spent 12 years as part of the Democratic majority in the Maryland Senate, four as Senate president, before being elected to the Democratic majority in the House in 1980. Then came the Republican tide of 1994 that cast Hoyer and many other Democrats into the political wilderness for the first time in their careers.

    "If you have been in for 40 years and then lose the majority after you've been a chairman and made policy, it's a far greater frustration than if you never had it at all," Hoyer said of the Democrats. "The Republicans say it was pretty arbitrary before and there's some merit to that. It's important that we learn the lessons of being in the minority."

    After a final hour of debate this morning and before the separate votes on each of the four impeachment articles, the Democrats plan to make their final parliamentary gambit. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) intends to make a motion to recommit the articles to the Judiciary Committee, with instructions to immediately return the package to the House floor in the form of a resolution censuring Clinton.

    Democrats know, because they did this countless times themselves, what in all likelihood will happen next. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), designated by the GOP leadership to preside at the impeachment debate, will rule that Gephardt's motion is "not germane." Gephardt will then appeal the ruling of the chair and demand a roll call vote.

    It will almost certainly be an exercise in futility, but it will have a purpose -- to put Republican moderates who may privately prefer censure to impeachment on the spot.

    "If there are any Republican moderates, this will be their opportunity to go with censure," Gejdenson said. "This is so they can't go home and say, 'I wanted to vote for censure but there was no opportunity.' This is the censure opportunity."

    Rep. David R. Obey (Wis.), the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, has no interest in such tactical skirmishing.

    "I've been here for 30 years and I don't give a good goddamn about strategy," he said as he sat in the Speaker's Lobby. "What I care about is this country and this institution. I think this is the worst day in this century for this institution and history will judge it as such."

    The country, Obey said, has been on "a 40-year path to destruction in our politics" and with the Clinton impeachment proceedings had reached "the most blasphemous act of all. Here you have politicians using the Ten Commandments not as a guide on how to treat each other but as a road map for the destruction of their political opponents. "

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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