By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines last night to open a formal inquiry into whether President Clinton should be impeached for concealing an Oval Office affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, making him only the third president to face a serious threat of being removed from power.
After a sober day-long debate that dwelt on history even as it wrote a new chapter, the committee endorsed an open-ended investigation modeled after the Watergate proceedings that forced President Richard M. Nixon from office 24 years ago. The matter now goes to the House floor, where it will be taken up Thursday and appears almost certain to be approved.
All 21 Republicans on the committee voted to launch the impeachment proceedings, while all 16 Democrats opposed the GOP resolution, underscoring the partisan flavor that has marked the panel's debate with congressional elections just four weeks from today. On identical party-line votes, the committee swept aside Democratic attempts to limit the scope and duration of the inquiry, leading the White House to complain that the process was unfair and unwarranted.
"We don't believe that there's anything that's transpired that approaches the standard of impeachable offense," newly installed White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said before the votes. Clinton himself had nothing to say on the developments during an afternoon appearance on the South Lawn with congressional Democratic leaders.
Judiciary Republicans stressed that they were not prejudging the president's guilt but deemed the evidence of Clinton's misconduct to be compelling. Their chief lawyer, David P. Schippers, refashioned independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to outline 15 specific counts of lying under oath, obstructing justice and conspiracy.
"Let me be clear about this. We are not here today to decide whether or not to impeach Mr. Clinton," committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said soon after gaveling the session to order. "We are not here to pass judgment on anyone. We are here to ask and answer this one simple question: Based upon what we now know, do we have a duty to look further, or to look away?"
The day's deliberations which started shortly after 9 a.m. and did not come to their preordained close until nearly 11 hours later were weighted by the gravity of the moment, playing out in the same cavernous chamber of the Rayburn House Office Building where the committee voted to impeach Nixon a generation ago.
Congress has never evicted a president from the White House and only twice has it come close. In 1974, Nixon resigned before the full House took up the articles of impeachment, and in 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House but survived a Senate trial by a single vote. (In 1843, political pique at a veto by President John Tyler led to an impeachment resolution on the floor, but it was defeated handily, 127 to 83.)
With so little precedent, both sides have relied on Watergate for guidance. Indeed, the resolution passed yesterday was adapted almost word for word from the one that launched the Nixon inquiry: "Resolved, that the Committee on the Judiciary . . . is authorized and directed to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America."
The current constitutional clash has its roots not in a burglary coverup but in Clinton's attempts to hide his relationship with Lewinsky during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and the subsequent Starr investigation. An eight-month grand jury probe yielded a report by Starr last month outlining 11 counts of potentially impeachable offenses.
The committee's Republican majority yesterday repackaged the Starr evidence, dropping a count alleging abuse of power while adding others charging the president with conspiracy, making false statements under oath and allowing someone else to commit a felony. Lewinsky was named as a co-conspirator, but Republicans concluded that her subsequent testimony to Starr was credible and that Congress has no power to punish her anyway.
The new calibration amounted to a strategic shift by the majority. By accusing Clinton of making false statements rather than perjury, Republicans sought to negate the White House argument that the president's testimony in the Jones case and before the Starr grand jury, no matter how misleading, did not fit the legal definition of perjury. And by dropping Starr's charge that Clinton abused his power in asserting executive privilege, the GOP abandoned the count that most analysts considered weakest.
That may not change how lawmakers view the case, however. Every member of the committee weighed in yesterday, with the two parties outlining starkly different standards for defining "high crimes and misdemeanors," the constitutional basis for impeachment.
Many Republicans argued that lying under oath alone could constitute an impeachable offense, let alone obstruction of justice or witness tampering, while most Democrats countered that such violations even if true were not severe enough to justify overturning the 1996 election since they concern Clinton's private life.
"This is not Watergate," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Judiciary Democrat and the only committee member left from the Nixon hearings. "It is an extramarital affair." Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said "the president's actions cry out for punishment," though not impeachment. "To me, it's clear that the president lied when he testified before the grand jury not to cover a crime, but to cover embarrassing personal behavior."
Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) disagreed, noting that 115 people are in federal prison for perjury. "When people believe that the president of the United States can lie, commit perjury, and get away with it," he said, "what are they going to say the next time they have to go to court . . . and they're expected to tell the truth? . . . Even if . . . that is all that's proven, that's enough for us to impeach and enough for him to be thrown out of office."
After the committee's decision last night, the measure moves to the full House for a vote. With the Republican leadership firmly behind it, the only real question is not whether it will pass, but how many Democrats will support it.
The Democratic leadership plans to offer on the floor an alternative plan for a limited inquiry along the lines defeated in committee yesterday; aides said the vast majority of their caucus will support that. Assuming the Democratic resolution is defeated by the GOP majority, however, many moderate Democrats and other party members in competitive races may feel compelled to vote for the GOP plan. Leadership aides estimated this bloc could number as high as 50 of the 206 House Democrats.
The House plans to recess for the fall campaign on Friday, meaning any impeachment hearings are not expected until after the Nov. 3 elections. Such hearings could begin as soon as the week after the elections, however, a Judiciary Committee aide said.
In the intervening weeks, Judiciary attorneys from both sides will begin exploring the allegations. Investigators may start issuing subpoenas and interrogatories as well as taking depositions from witnesses as long as they are authorized by Hyde or Conyers, who can delegate this authority under the committee's rules.
The debate yesterday, while civil and substantive, illuminated the partisan schism on the committee as Democrats failed to win support for two substitutes for Hyde's resolution.
One offered by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) would have required the committee to define a standard for impeachment before beginning an inquiry and set a deadline of Nov. 25 for the House to vote on articles of impeachment, dismissal of charges or alternative sanctions. The second, proposed by Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), also would have required the committee to judge whether Starr's allegations met the threshold for impeachment before proceeding but would have established no time line for the panel's deliberations.
Hyde has said he wants to wrap up work by the end of the year but opposed setting a formal deadline because he said it would create incentives to run out the clock. He also committed again to holding hearings on standards for impeachment, but not as a prerequisite for the inquiry. "We don't want to be suspended in amber while time marches on," he said.
In rejecting the suggestion to limit the inquiry strictly to the Lewinsky matter, Hyde said he did not want to be locked in, though he stressed he was not eager to expand the probe. "We're not out looking for more," he said. "We're not trolling for additional subjects."
Before the votes, chief investigators for both parties offered contrasting interpretations of Starr's report in the panel's first public discussion of the evidence since the independent counsel delivered his 453-page report on Sept. 9. Schippers, the Chicago Democrat hired by Hyde to represent the Republicans, offered the new formulation of 15 counts against Clinton:
One alleging the president conspired with "Monica Lewinsky and others," who were not named, to obstruct justice in the Jones case;
Two alleging that he "aided, abetted, counseled and procured" Lewinsky to file a false affidavit denying a sexual relationship;
Four alleging he testified falsely during his Jones deposition about whether he and Lewinsky had an affair, were ever alone, exchanged gifts and discussed the Jones case;
Two alleging he testified falsely before the grand jury about their affair, his knowledge of Lewinsky's affidavit and his knowledge of what his lawyer said about the affidavit;
Three alleging he obstructed justice by helping to conceal evidence in the form of gifts he gave her, by agreeing on a cover story with Lewinsky to hide their affair and by helping her get a job when she might be a witness against him;
Two alleging he tampered with witnesses by coaching presidential secretary Betty Currie and by lying to aides who would later testify before the grand jury;
And one alleging he engaged in "misprision" of Lewinsky's felonies, meaning he stood by without reporting a crime to authorities.
"If lying under oath is tolerated, and, when exposed, is not visited with immediate and substantial adverse consequences, the integrity of this country's entire judicial process is fatally compromised and that process will inevitably collapse," Schippers said. "The subject matter of the underlying case, whether civil or criminal, and the circumstances under which the testimony is given are of no significance whatever. It is the oath itself that is sacred and must be enforced."
Schippers went on to add his personal opinion as a "father and grandfather," telling lawmakers that the law protects citizens from "evil and tyranny" and warning them that "our fellow Americans, many of whom are reposing in military cemeteries throughout the world, are looking down on and judging what you do today."
That prompted complaints from Democrats, who prevailed upon Hyde to rule that Schippers's last statement was out of order and should be stricken from the record.
In his rebuttal, Abbe D. Lowell, the chief Democratic investigator, said Schippers had simply subdivided several Starr charges and failed to offer any significant reasons why the House should move toward impeaching the president.
"The [Starr] referral and the majority counsel's presentation suggest that there is some kind of equal sign between a violation by the president of any number of laws in statute books on one side and the impeachment provisions . . . of the Constitution on the other," Lowell said. "We read the precedents differently and see that initiating an impeachment process for only the third time in American history takes a far higher threshold than simply making a laundry list of laws a president might have violated."
Lowell also challenged whether Starr offered sufficient evidence to support the counts. Echoing Clinton's attorneys, Lowell argued that the president merely misled about a consensual relationship and did not encourage Lewinsky to return the gifts he gave her or initiate the job search for her, which in any case began long before she was identified as a witness in the Jones case.
Democrats repeatedly assailed Starr throughout the day for what they called a witch hunt, making clear they intend to put him on trial alongside Clinton in the weeks to come. "Yes, there is a threat to society here," Conyers said, "but it is from the tactics of a win-at-all-costs prosecutor determined to sink a president of the opposition party."
Conyers cited news reports indicating that lawyers allied with Jones tipped off Starr's office to the Lewinsky affair a week before Linda R. Tripp contacted the independent counsel on Jan. 12, suggesting that may be evidence of improper coordination with a civil plaintiff.
David E. Kendall, the president's personal attorney, pushed the same point yesterday, firing off a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno saying such contact raises "very serious questions about the conduct of the Starr investigation." Kendall asked for access to whatever information Starr presented Reno in January to win permission to expand his long-running Whitewater probe to cover the Lewinsky case. Starr responded by saying Kendall's letter was filled with "innuendo and guilt by association" and defended his conduct as "professional, responsible and forthright."
On another front, the White House filed its final brief asking the Supreme Court to hear its appeal of a court decision ordering the president's government lawyers to testify in the Starr probe. The brief argued that Starr, as an "inferior officer of the executive branch," should not be able to force White House lawyers to disclose confidential advice to the president related to his impeachment defense.
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