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Debate Rages on Eve of Impeachment Vote

Hyde House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde bringing his panel's impeachment resolution to the floor of the House. (CSPAN)

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    From Today's Post
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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998

    Online Extra, Web-Posted 3:16 p.m. EST With the eyes of history watching, the House of Representatives today began the first floor debate on impeaching a president in 130 years as Republicans argued that President Clinton has "corrupted the rule of law" while Democrats objected to what they called a "partisan coup d'etat."

    The early hours of debate focused little attention on the specific evidence assembled to charge Clinton with lying under oath and obstructing justice to hide his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. Instead, members who have been called back to Washington for the rare lame-duck session concentrated on whether the allegations rose to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," the constitutional requirement for impeachment.

    Following a parliamentary standoff over how to proceed, Republicans and Democrats came up with a compromise schedule after debate had already begun. The House will consider the articles of impeachment until 10 o'clock tonight, then return at 9 tomorrow for a final hour of debate before the voting begins.

    Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who oversaw the two-month inquiry that led to this day's historic debate, said Clinton's actions were not a private matter but a direct assault on his oath to uphold the nation's laws. "The compact has been broken," Hyde said. "The people's trust has been betrayed."

    Democrats countered that the Republicans have lost all sense of proportion, arguing that expelling Clinton for allegations unrelated to his job would lower the bar and endanger all future presidents. "Monica Lewinsky is not Watergate," said Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "Let he who has no sin in this chamber cast the first vote."

    That sentiment struck a nerve in the House just a day after Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) acknowledged after Hustler magazine threatened to run a story on his past indiscretions that he had "on occasion strayed from my marriage." Republicans were on edge because of the disclosure, fuming that Livingston was targeted because of the impeachment debate and distinguishing his past trysts from the allegations that Clinton lied under oath.

    Democrats were buzzing about the Livingston case too, seeing it as a perfect metaphor for what they believe is the hypocrisy of passing judgment on Clinton for personal weaknesses.

    But the chief House Democrat, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), implicitly reached out to Livingston without naming him during a floor speech, generating the day's only standing ovation from both sides of the aisle.

    "The events of the last days sadden me," Gephardt said somberly in a reference lost on no one. "We are now at the height of a cycle of negative attacks, character assassination, personal smears of good people, decent people, worthy people... The politics of smear and slash-and-burn must end."

    Having given up the right to preside even before his own scandal erupted, Livingston sat in the middle of the chamber, his hands folded, his face impassive. As the day went on, though, fellow Republicans made sure to find him on the floor to shake his hand and offer their support. And the man Livingston turned the gavel over to, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), admonished the chamber to avoid "personally abusive language" and comparisons between the president's alleged actions and those of any member, drawing hoots from some Democrats.

    The debate went forward this morning even as U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf launched a third day of air strikes on Iraq, leaving the capital absorbed with the two most serious acts of government envisioned by the Constitution.

    Democrats complained that impeachment should have been postponed until after hostilities end and tried unsuccessfully to adjourn the session in protest. With 24,000 pilots, sailors and other service members in harm's way, they argued, proceeding with the debate could undercut troop morale. One Democrat even argued that Saddam Hussein could be emboldened to fight longer, leaving the Republican majority with "blood on its hands."

    Hyde and other Republicans rejected the grievance, noting that impeachment proceedings were held against President Richard M. Nixon while U.S. troops were still fighting in Vietnam. "We felt the quicker we could go ahead, the sooner we could show the world that our democracy works," Hyde said, triggering derisive noise from the Democratic side of the chamber.

    The House is considering four articles of impeachment against Clinton. They accuse him of committing perjury before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, perjury in the Paula Jones case, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. If the House passes any article by a simple majority, it will be sent to the Senate for a trial in which the chief justice will serve as presiding officer and the senators will sit as jurors. Under the Constitution, it requires a two-thirds vote to convict the president and expel him from office.

    Each of the four articles will be voted on separately. The two perjury articles appear to have the most support, while it remained less clear whether obstruction of justice and abuse of power allegations will be approved. Before the impeachment votes, Democrats will try one last procedural maneuver to force a vote on their preferred response to the Lewinsky scandal - censuring the president while leaving him in office. But they hold little hope of winning.

    The debate is the first on the House floor to contemplate the removal of a president since Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 as part of a struggle with Congress over Reconstruction policy following the Civil War. Johnson was acquitted by a single vote after a Senate trial.

    Today's debate got underway at 9 a.m. with less energy than some had expected, given the fiery partisanship that preceded this momentous day. Only half of the gallery seats open to the public were filled at the start of the session and many of the other galleries reserved for government officials were empty. After the initial round of rhetoric, most of the members drifted off the floor as well to take care of other business.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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