By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
The House of Representatives yesterday launched the first presidential impeachment inquiry since Watergate, voting 258 to 176 to investigate whether President Clinton committed "high crimes and misdemeanors" by lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.
The decision set up the gravest constitutional clash envisioned under the American system of government and will permanently scar the Clinton presidency regardless of how it ends. Even if he survives, Clinton will go down in history as only the third president confronted with formal hearings into whether he should be removed from office.
In what many members called the most important vote of their careers, 31 Democrats defected from the president and joined a unanimous Republican caucus to approve an open-ended inquiry less than a month before the Nov. 3 midterm elections. The GOP majority rejected a Democratic alternative for a limited probe with a Dec. 31 deadline, although all but five of the lawmakers present voted for an inquiry of one kind or another.
On a day when defeat was a foregone conclusion, the White House took solace that Democrats did not bolt in greater numbers to vote for the GOP resolution, given predictions that had ranged as high as 50 to 70. Clinton advisers hope to convince the public that the inquiry is a partisan vendetta, an argument that would have been harder to make had more Democrats broken from the president.
A preview of the fall campaign played itself out on the House floor yesterday during the historic four hours of sometimes solemn, sometimes surly debate. In speeches punctuated at times by outbursts of applause, Republicans and some Democrats argued that an inquiry was imperative to restore "the rule of law," while the vast majority of Democrats denounced what some called a "pre-Halloween witch hunt."
Two hours after the vote, Clinton said in the Cabinet Room of the White House that he had "surrendered" in his fight to head off an inquiry. "I hope that we can now move forward with this process in a way that is fair, that is constitutional and that is timely," he said. "The American people have been through a lot on this and I think that everyone deserves that."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) in his opening remarks on the floor promised just what the president asked. "We don't make any judgments," Hyde said. "We don't make any charges. We simply begin a search for truth." While he did not rule out expanding the probe beyond the Lewinsky allegations, he said, "I will use all my strength to ensure that this inquiry does not become a fishing expedition."
The vote cleared the way for the committee to begin its own investigation into 15 counts alleging that Clinton conspired with Lewinsky to illegally impede the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. The top Republican and Democratic staff members will meet today to begin the process of assessing the evidence submitted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and planning which witnesses to subpoena. Already, the panel appears inclined to call Lewinsky, Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and presidential secretary Betty Currie, informed sources said.
Democrats want to call Starr as well to focus attention on his conduct during his long probe and to explore allegations that the whole crisis was orchestrated by the president's political enemies in an effort to contravene the 1996 election. Republicans want to make sure that Clinton's actions, not Starr's, remain the issue.
With the House heading home this weekend to campaign, the committee will return after the election to hold hearings, some of which could be conducted behind closed doors. Hyde said he wants to wrap up the inquiry by the end of the year, although he and other GOP leaders were unwilling to commit to such a timetable as the Democrats insisted in their alternative plan.
The resolution Hyde pushed through empowers his committee to conduct a wide-open inquiry modeled after the impeachment proceedings that led to President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in 1974: "Resolved, that the Committee on the Judiciary, acting as a whole or by any subcommittee thereof appointed by the chairman for the purposes hereof and in accordance with the rules of the committee, 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."
If the committee ultimately approves articles of impeachment, the issue would return to the House floor, where Clinton could be impeached on a simple majority vote. That would be the equivalent of an indictment, setting up a full-fledged trial in the Senate, with House members acting as prosecutors and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presiding. A two-thirds Senate vote would be required to remove Clinton from office.
Besides Nixon, the only other president ever subjected to a serious impeachment effort was Andrew Johnson, who warred with Congress over how much to crack down on the South during Reconstruction. Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868 but spared in a Senate trial by a single vote.
Yesterday's debate started out on a partisan note and the rancor only escalated through the day. Such resolutions normally are allotted only one hour of debate and, while Hyde agreed to allow a second hour, stung Democrats complained repeatedly about being muzzled. As in a football game, the official clock on the House floor starts and stops with the action, meaning the whole process along with votes began at 11:04 a.m. and concluded at 3:16 p.m., with 76 members rising to speak at one point or another.
Despite the momentous occasion, the chamber was typically empty at the beginning, prompting Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) to grab a microphone and demand that colleagues "get their tails here." By the time voting began, the place was filled.
Democrats argued that Hyde's plan was too broad. Not only should it be limited in length, they said, it should also require the committee first to determine standards for impeachable offenses and then decide whether the allegations against Clinton, even if true, are serious enough to reach that threshold.
"We should be thorough, but we should also be prompt," said Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who offered the Democratic alternative. "The question, you see, is not whether to have an inquiry," added Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "The question today is: What kind of inquiry will this be?"
Other Democrats stressed vigorously that the proposed punishment did not fit the supposed crime. "Yes, the president has sinned," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.). "But those of you who want to rise and cast the first stone, my question is: Who has not sinned?"
The Democratic plan was voted down 236 to 198, with only one Republican, Jay Dickey (Ark.), supporting it and 10 Democrats opposing it. Of those 10, half voted no because they supported the unrestricted GOP plan while the other half opposed any inquiry at all.
Republicans rejected arguments that the crimes Clinton is accused of are not severe enough to warrant considering his removal, asserting that such a conclusion would set a dangerous precedent for future presidents.
"What's a stake here is the rule of law," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a Judiciary member. "Even the president of the United States has no right to break the law." To vote against an inquiry, he added, would signal "a return to the imperial presidency of the Nixon era."
Invoking the same history, Hyde added, "This is not about sexual misconduct any more than Watergate was about a third-rate burglary. It's about the reaction of the president to that event."
Hoping to build more of a bipartisan coalition, Hyde yielded some of the Republican time for a couple of Democratic supporters. Rep. Paul McHale (Pa.), the first House Democrat to call for Clinton's resignation, said the president had "forfeited his right to office" and proven himself to be "predatory, reckless [and] breathtakingly arrogant for a man already a defendant in a sexual harassment suit."
"We cannot define the president's character," McHale said. "But we can define the nation's."
Of the 31 Democrats who supported the Hyde resolution, four came from Virginia: Reps. James P. Moran Jr., Owen B. Pickett, Norman Sisisky and Virgil H. Goode Jr. They were joined by local Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia and Constance A. Morella and Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland. Maryland Democratic Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Al Wynn voted against the inquiry and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who has no floor vote, spoke out against it.
The debate took on a scathing tenor at times. When Gephardt said the Republicans want to investigate every possible Clinton misdeed, Republicans applauded as if to agree; when he said the two sides do not trust each other, they jeered. As a parade of Democratic women tried to speak longer than allowed, Republicans tried to drown them out. The more inflammatory speeches by Democratic partisans drew boisterous applause. And at one point, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) grabbed the microphone to sarcastically propose the House adjourn to Salem for a witch trial.
Even Hyde and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), a pair of courtly veterans, sniped scornfully at each other during one tense moment.
The partisanship displayed for the national television audience may have helped the White House cause, Democrats argued. The more the situation was cast as a fight between the parties, the more Democrats appeared willing to stick with the president.
Democratic strategists were particularly heartened that the caucus stood together as much as it did. "If the Republicans could pick up only 15 percent of the Democratic Caucus on a procedural vote just three weeks before an election, how many do you think they'll get on articles of impeachment in three or four months?" asked one aide. "The end is preordained. There are no Democratic votes for articles of impeachment."
Said a White House adviser, "You can't say that we're ecstatic, because we'd rather not be here. But that has to be a pretty good result. The Republicans are our best allies here."
Many anguished Democrats apparently decided to return to the fold after the leadership made concessions in its alternative proposal. And others said they were motivated by comments by Republican leaders suggesting they want to expand any inquiry into other White House scandals, such as Whitewater and campaign finance.
What's more, the vote may make it easier for Democrats to block any future vote to extend the inquiry into the next Congress. If the investigation stretches beyond the January swearing-in of the 106th Congress to be elected next month, the full House would have to take up the matter again.
In some ways, yesterday's deliberations resembled the Watergate debate, yet with the party's positions reversed. On Feb. 6, 1974, the full House authorized impeachment proceedings into Nixon's conduct only after the minority Republicans failed in an attempt to set an April 30 deadline and complained about an open-ended "fishing expedition." The Democratic majority argued that no limits should be imposed.
The difference between that debate and yesterday's was the final vote tally, which in the Watergate balloting gave no hint of the underlying partisan tensions. In that case, the House voted 410 to 4 to launch the impeachment inquiry.
The troubles of both presidents, though, had their origins in the same Watergate complex. While Nixon's burglars broke into Democratic headquarters there, Clinton found himself drawn to a 22-year-old woman who lived there. His attempts to hide his 18-month, on-and-off affair with Lewinsky during the Jones case were thwarted when Starr began investigating and, after a seven-month spectacle, Clinton finally admitted on national television in August that he "misled people, including even my wife."
Now it will be up to the Judiciary Committee to determine whether those deceptions merit his eviction from the White House. To get started, the chief Republican investigator, David P. Schippers, and panel staff director Thomas E. Mooney plan to meet with the chief Democratic investigator, Abbe D. Lowell, and chief counsel Julian Epstein. These aides will begin the laborious task of narrowing the facts in dispute in the Starr testimony so they can reduce their attorneys' workload. By reaching agreement on questions like who Vernon Jordan called on certain days while providing job help to Lewinsky, the two parties can present a set of facts the White House could then confirm.
These aides, who are empowered under the rules to issue subpoenas and conduct depositions with the approval of Hyde and Conyers, also will begin negotiating over which witnesses must testify before the committee.
Both sides believe that if the staff can reach agreements away from the public spotlight, the probe can focus relatively quickly on major discrepancies. "The biggest myth going around here is that there's a need for a major investigation," Epstein said. "Most of the facts are already on the table."
Some Judiciary Republicans agreed. "My sense is there would not have to be an exhaustive investigation of the key issues submitted by Judge Starr," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.).
That could change if Starr sends another referral. In a letter responding to a committee request on the eve of the vote, Starr said he could not rule out transmitting more evidence of impeachable offenses to the House. While he did not elaborate, he continues to investigate possible perjury or obstruction of justice in connection with Kathleen E. Willey, the former White House volunteer who alleged the president groped her in the Oval Office in 1993. Starr's grand jury continues to operate at the federal courthouse in Washington, meeting twice this week including yesterday.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company