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Tawdry Topics Rob Moment of Solemnity

Hyde Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) gives his opening statement on the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. (Reuters)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page A1

    When the clerk finally called the roll, there were no surprises, simply the stark yeses and noes of grim-faced men and women who had made up their minds long ago, and knew they were standing on different sides of a hopeless partisan divide.

    Minutes before, President Clinton had gone on television briefly to apologize yet again, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) suggested it might be "wise to . . . have the opportunity to see the message . . . prior to taking this vote?"

    But it was too late for that. "The handwriting," as Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) had said long before, "is on the wall." And so it was. On impeachment Article I charging President Clinton with perjury before a federal grand jury Aug. 17, 1998: 21 Republican votes to impeach; 16 Democratic votes not to impeach.

    The room was dead quiet.

    Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) called forth Article II, triggering a brief rustle of procedural chat.

    Then Waters asked to be recognized again, and spoke briefly but passionately to "my grandchildren," "my mother," "my 12 brothers and sisters, living and dead": "I have fought the impeachment of this president of the United States in every way I know how," she said. "Let history treat me kindly."

    It was almost certainly the wish of every one of the House Judiciary Committee's 37 members, and for many moments yesterday they paid eloquent and appropriate homage to what Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) acknowledged would quite likely be "the hardest decision I will ever make."

    But when history looks back on the first day of debate on the impeachment of President Clinton, the lingering image also will be one of endless hours of squalid arguments over oral sex and whether Clinton, as he was asked in his grand jury appearance, "considered the kissing or touching of breasts or genitalia of another person" as "sexual relations."

    "There's so much here that I really don't care to read," Hyde at one point told the Democrats who were hammering at him, "but it's available . . ."

    The same passage and others equally unpleasant were read and reread by at least a half-dozen committee members. Saying the words out loud changed no minds on the panel and gave no one joy.

    Indeed, for much of yesterday's marathon hearing, the tawdriness of Clinton's behavior with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and the dreariness of his alleged crimes sapped the proceedings of grandeur and transformed them into a two-bit bedroom farce.

    The crux of the case against Clinton was that he lied about the Lewinsky matter before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's federal grand jury. The Republicans called it perjury, and of the four articles under consideration, Article I was the one deemed most likely to have a chance to pass the full House and trigger impeachment's last act: a trial in the Senate.

    "We're dealing with something that is more serious than anything we have dealt with for a long, long, time," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). He, like the other Democrats, wanted the specifics.

    The actual article of impeachment didn't provide them, simply charging Clinton with perjury concerning "the nature and details of his relationship with a subordinate government employee." Hyde couldn't find them, and began reading the offending words from testimony. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) read some more and offered footnotes from a copy of the grand jury transcript a comic preacher citing verses from the Bible.

    But it wasn't funny. So profound is the partisan distrust of the committee members that they can no longer ascribe their conflicts to honest differences of opinion. Instead, both sides said, the enemy had hidden motives. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) accused the Republicans of intentionally using vague language "to vacillate and confuse," because "they believe the specifics" could not stand scrutiny on the House floor.

    The specifics lying about understanding the phrase "sexual relations" and "what he touched and when he touched it" were simply "too trivial," Frank said. "I will give the majority credit, though: They know a losing case when they see one." But Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) had seen though the Democrats. "It's very clever and very disingenuous," Barr said. The Democrats were insisting on specifics to "limit arbitrarily the data, evidence and therefore the charges on which the president can be tried," he said.

    Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) interceded. The Republicans "couldn't have it both ways." They may say that impeachment is not a legal proceeding, he said, but he asked how they could use a loaded legal term such as "perjury" in an impeachment article and not comply with the legal rights of the accused to see the exact language.

    Both sides talked about Watergate, the holy grail of impeachment deliberations. Democrats noted that even though the committee had President Richard M. Nixon nailed to the wall, it preferred the phrase "false statements" to "perjury." So did Starr in his referral.

    Fair enough, Republicans said. But Watergate was their template, too. The committee then, like the committee now, used vague language in its articles, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.) said, and read a few lines from 1974 to make his point. Also, he added, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) the committee's senior Democrat today and the only current member to serve during Watergate, voted for them. It went on and on, the raw anger evident on both sides of the aisle. But there was probably no other way. A "mark-up" of pending legislation the crafting of a bill to prepare it for the floor is congressional business at its down-and-dirtiest, where lines are drawn and fights fought.

    And when it's on television, members are waiting to pounce on any mistake. When several Democrats in the closing hours of debate suggested the Republicans were running Clinton out of office on trumped-up charges with no "clear and convincing evidence," Hyde took them to task:

    "I just want to say people watching this on television might get the wrong idea that if we pass these articles of impeachment, we're throwing the president out of office," said Hyde. The Senate does that, he explained, not the House.

    The Democrats smelled blood in the water: Schumer said, "To the public it is perfectly clear, I hope, that if the mechanism the chairman and his colleagues seek to unleash . . . rolls in the direction they seek, the president will be gone, and that's what they want!"

    Far more uplifting and, perhaps, more representative of the members' state of mind were the 10-minute speeches that the committee's back-benchers completed during the morning.

    These misnamed "opening statements" were, in fact, the only time that the committee members had during their three days of deliberations to express their feelings about impeachment without having to "lay down a marker," establish "a benchmark," or "fire a shot across" someone's "bow."

    The public heard for almost the first time from bespectacled Rep. Ed Pease (R-Ind.), who described how two days ago he returned to the evidence room in the Ford Building to reread documents before he wrote his speech, then reread his notes, then "went to God in prayer for guidance and strength."

    Yes, he had concluded that the president had committed impeachable offenses, but he wanted his colleagues all of his colleagues to know that he believed in them and wished them well:

    "I believe firmly that each of us has honestly, sincerely struggled to do what he or she believed must be done and that party affiliation was not the basis for decisions made here," Pease said. "Those who contend otherwise regarding members in either party do a disservice to the members of this committee, to their work, and to the Congress."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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