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Republicans Draft 4 Impeachment Articles

Ruff White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff testifies Wednesday. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 10, 1998; Page A1

    Unmoved by the White House defense case, the Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee yesterday proposed four articles of impeachment alleging that President Clinton "has betrayed his trust as president and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice."

    The articles, modeled on the language the panel used 24 years ago in Watergate, charged Clinton with obstruction of justice, abuse of power and two counts of perjury stemming from his attempts to cover up his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. In addition to endorsing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's allegations, the articles accused Clinton of lying in response to 81 questions posed by the committee last month.

    Republicans released the proposed articles late yesterday while the president's team was still wrapping up its two-day defense presentation with a plea by White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff not to put the nation through "the horror" of a Senate trial. Capping a 10-hour day of testimony, Ruff maintained that Clinton's actions, however objectionable, were not impeachable because they did not "subvert our system of government."

    But for the first time, the White House explicitly endorsed censure as an alternative to ousting the president, even as committee Democrats circulated such a proposal and secured a GOP promise to have it considered. A congressional reprimand, Ruff suggested, would be the proper response if lawmakers conclude the charges against Clinton were true.

    "If you believe he acted in this fashion," Ruff told the panel, "you ought to censure him in whatever fashion seems most appropriate. But you cannot overturn the will of the people, even if you find that there is clear and convincing evidence, which I do not think you can."

    Ruff's detailed examination of the evidence drew passionate rebukes from panel Republicans, who professed impatience with what they saw as more legal hair-splitting and are prepared to approve at least one of the four articles when voting starts Friday. "We're still not getting straight talk and the truth," complained Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). At key moments, he added, "the president was lying."

    Ruff insisted there was a distinction between misleading and lying, saying Clinton did the former but not the latter. While acknowledging that "reasonable people" could conclude Clinton "crossed over that line" of perjury, a clearly uncomfortable Ruff explained that the president believed he was telling the truth in denying sexual relations with Lewinsky because he considers it to mean only intercourse, not oral sex.

    In a bid to rescue Clinton by winning votes of moderate Republicans, the president's Democratic allies distributed a counterproposal that would condemn him in harsh terms without removing him from office. Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) agreed to allow a vote on the censure proposal in committee, where it will almost surely fail, but Democrats were still fighting for a chance to introduce it on the floor when the full House convenes next week.

    Until yesterday, the White House publicly had kept an arm's length from the censure alternative to avoid hurting its chances. But even before Ruff's embrace, a witness called by the president's defense team, former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld (R), proposed that Clinton be reprimanded and pay a voluntary fine.

    The competing impeachment and censure proposals outlined yesterday signaled the beginning of the final round in the House, as both sides braced for a frenetic 10 days of maneuvering to win over the precious few centrists who hold Clinton's fate in their hands.

    In their search for defectors, Democrats have identified 26 "top targets" and seven "additional targets" among Republicans with Clinton-friendly districts. But the key will be finding a way to force the censure floor vote, according to strategists, because wavering Republicans reluctant to oust the president and yet unwilling to give him a free pass may feel compelled to vote for impeachment if they think it will be the only option available to them.

    The Republican lawyers who drafted the proposed articles of impeachment adopted much of the language used when the Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard M. Nixon in 1974. For example, like Nixon before him, Clinton was charged with "using the powers and influence of the office of the President of the United States" in a way that violated "his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office."

    However, the wording was changed in at least one significant way. The Nixon articles each concluded with a single sentence: "Wherefore, Richard M. Nixon, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office."

    Clinton, according to the Judiciary proposal, warrants all of those things as well as "disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States."

    The articles were tied together in a single eight-page resolution, but will be debated, amended and voted on separately. Any articles that reach the House floor also will be voted on individually but cannot be amended.

    While the language echoed Watergate, the substance of the charges was drawn almost entirely from Starr's 453-page report to Congress asserting that Clinton orchestrated a wide-ranging scheme to impede the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and the independent counsel's subsequent criminal investigation:

    Article I: Perjury in grand jury testimony. The resolution charged that Clinton lied under oath Aug. 17 about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky and about his "corrupt efforts to influence the testimony" by witnesses during the Jones suit.

    Article II: Perjury in the Jones case. Clinton, according to the resolution, lied both in sworn written answers to an interrogatory from her lawyers on Dec. 23, 1997, and again during a deposition on Jan. 17 about his interactions with Lewinsky.

    Article III: Obstruction of justice. Citing a series of actions, the resolution maintained Clinton "impeded the administration of justice" by encouraging Lewinsky to lie under oath, helping her find a job, coaching his secretary's possible testimony and helping to hide gifts that had been subpoenaed.

    Article IV: Abuse of power. Clinton, "using the attributes of office," lied to the American people about his affair and "frivolously and corruptly asserted executive privilege," the resolution asserted. In a new allegation, the resolution contended Clinton "exhibited contempt" for the impeachment inquiry by making false statements in response to the committee's written questions.

    Hyde, who looked tired after the second daylong hearing in a row, said afterward that he would support all the articles against the president, but evinced no enthusiasm for the upcoming debate.

    "This whole process has been a downer," he said. "It's stressful, extremely stressful."

    But it was not clear all four will pass even with Hyde's endorsement. Republicans split perjury into separate articles because some were uncomfortable with the prospect of throwing the president out of office for testimony in a civil case that has since been settled. Likewise, several Republicans are uneasy about the abuse-of-power article, worried that it may be a stretch to call lying to aides impeachable.

    "We'll have to pray on that," said Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.).

    One committee Republican seemed surprised that Clinton's responses to the 81 questions would be cited in the articles, saying it was not discussed at length during closed meetings. "I remember somebody throwing that out," the Republican said. "I thought it was a throwaway comment."

    Committee Democrats quickly released their own 13-page rebuttal to the impeachment articles, going through each one to argue that Clinton's answers under oath were ambiguous and misleading but not untrue. The minority report also attacked Lewinsky's credibility in a way the White House has never done, saying repeatedly that she "was not truthful" in some of her recollections and statements to friends.

    The White House was irked that the articles were drafted and put out even before Ruff had finished his testimony at 6 p.m. yesterday. "Somewhere in Australia, a million kangaroos are embarrassed by the name that this is giving their court system," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

    While not threatening Clinton's tenure in office, the censure proposal drafted by committee Democrats employed stinging language in denouncing the president's misconduct, although it did not characterize it as perjury or obstruction.

    The president, it said, "made false statements concerning his reprehensible conduct with a subordinate" and "wrongly took steps to delay discovery of the truth." In addition to failing to set high moral standards and foster respect for the truth, it said, Clinton "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of president and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him."

    Fashioned as a joint "sense of the Congress" resolution that would have to be approved by both houses, the censure would be presented to Clinton for his signature, a tactic intended to force him to publicly and formally acknowledge the rebuke for the history books.

    Outside of the committee, key Democrats began pressing Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) yesterday for a floor vote on censure immediately after the House considers articles of impeachment against the president. Several of the 31 Democrats who broke party ranks and supported an open-ended impeachment inquiry of Clinton this fall have begun circulating a letter on censure among lawmakers who voted that same way.

    "There is no excuse for the majority to prohibit consideration of an alternative on the floor," wrote Democratic Reps. Tim Roemer (Ind.), Ellen Tauscher (Calif.) and James P. Moran Jr. (Va.).

    Weld, the former Republican governor called by the White House to defend Clinton before the committee yesterday, proposed that a fine accompany any censure along with a requirement that the money not come from the president's legal defense fund. The proposal was seen as a signal that the White House was willing to accept a financial penalty, although the president's aides quickly said they did not know that Weld would make those comments before he arrived at the committee chamber yesterday morning.

    Weld was a late addition to the defense case in an effort to reach out to the moderate Republicans who may be uncertain whether Clinton's actions deserve the political equivalent of the death penalty.

    "They're not offenses against the system of government; they don't imperil the structure of our government," said Weld, a former top Reagan Justice Department official who worked for the Judiciary Committee during Watergate alongside future first lady Hillary Rodham. "If any of you are thinking we've got to vote for impeachment to tarnish the president, he's already tarnished. That's not the purpose of the impeachment process. Nobody's going to forget this stuff."

    Appearing with Weld were other former prosecutors who said they would never have taken Starr's case to a jury. "This case is a loser and would not be sustained in court," said Edward S.G. Dennis Jr., a former U.S. attorney from Philadelphia. "Not every wrong is a crime," said Richard J. Davis, who worked on the Watergate prosecution.

    Ruff made similar points and, perhaps to demonstrate lack of concern about any potential criminal case, even promised a GOP questioner that Clinton "absolutely" would not pardon himself to escape legal jeopardy.

    Reserved and relentlessly sober, Ruff employed a no-bombast approach throughout the afternoon, though he did not hesitate to jump in at moments when he wanted to dispute a Republican. Rather than attack Starr personally as his colleagues have done so fiercely in the past, he chose to point out what he considered flaws in the prosecutor's report, saying at one point, "I don't attribute evil motive."

    Yet it was clear the veteran lawyer who shies away from the media spotlight found all the talk of sexual details awkward. In the middle of trying to define sex, he stopped abruptly, shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. "What are we doing here, talking about this?" he asked no one in particular.

    The Republicans made clear they thought the blame for that situation lay squarely with the president and his quibbling over the meaning of words like "sex," "is" and "alone" to defend himself against perjury. For all of the White House explanation of Clinton nuances, there were no buyers on the GOP side of the dais.

    "That might sell to a Georgetown Law grad," Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) said to Ruff at one point, "but to the average citizen across this country it's a pretty tough sell."

    With the White House defense now complete, the committee will turn to its own investigators, who will begin making their own presentations at 9 a.m. today.

    Democratic chief investigator Abbe D. Lowell will focus on what one Democrat called the "selectivity of Starr's interpretation" of the facts, raising questions about the evidence used to buttress the allegations he made in his initial report to Congress.

    GOP chief investigator David P. Schippers will go through the charges against the president, employing both charts and the as-yet unsealed video of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case. In the video, according to those who have seen it, the president was paying close attention when his attorney, Robert S. Bennett, denied Clinton had engaged in sexual activity of any kind with Lewinsky – contrary to the president's later assertion that he was not listening at the time.

    The two sides have agreed to release the video, according to committee aides, but must formally approve the release today.

    Staff writers John F. Harris and George Lardner Jr. contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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