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Debate on Impeachment Opens

Schippers Majority investigative counsel David Schippers shows clips from President Clinton's videotaped testimony in the Paula Jones case. (AP)

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  • By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A1

    Riven by partisanship and burdened by history, the House Judiciary Committee opened formal debate last night into whether to impeach President Clinton after hearing a multimedia legal presentation that brought the voices of some of the scandal's central players into the chambers for the first time.

    Clinton, Monica S. Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp -- never summoned to testify in person -- made electronic cameo appearances during closing arguments by the committee's investigators, who employed video and audio tapes alternately to demonstrate that Clinton dissembled or to suggest that Lewinsky did.

    For the first time, segments from Clinton's Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case were played publicly, showing a subdued and evasive president denying under oath the affair with Lewinsky that he would ultimately admit to the nation seven months later. And in a preview of the spectacle that might be generated by a Senate trial involving live testimony, Lewinsky was heard on secretly recorded telephone conversations debating with Tripp whether various intimate acts constitute sex.

    With voting to begin today, committee members weighed the presentations through a long day and then launched into a solemn and passionate discussion last night about four proposed articles of impeachment. Republicans remained solidly convinced that Clinton committed perjury, although members said that articles alleging obstruction of justice and abuse of power could be amended or even rejected.

    The speeches largely echoed the debate that has torn the country in the 11 months since the Lewinsky investigation began. "His conduct constitutes a great insult to our constitutional system," declared Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). Countered Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), "What would we be removing him for? Sex and lying about sex."

    The deliberations were marked by a new eruption of partisan rancor over the scope of the impeachment probe. Republican investigator David P. Schippers told the panel that he found unspecified evidence of other criminal actions involving the president but left it out because of time constraints, provoking the ire of Democrats who complained of smear tactics.

    What Schippers did not tell the committee in public session was that he still hopes to introduce evidence of wrongdoing other than the Lewinsky matter if the inquiry continues into next year. In an interview last night, Schippers said he deliberately wrote "very broad articles" so he can revive lingering questions about Clinton's conduct later if he discovers more.

    "Hopefully, we'll get it out if they vote it out and send it to the Senate," Schippers said. "If it's wide open, we can get some additional evidence in."

    During the accelerated committee inquiry, Schippers made aborted attempts to probe Clinton's campaign fund-raising tactics as well as efforts by the president's allies to steer work to former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell while he was under investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

    Schippers told the panel yesterday that he found "very promising leads" including "incidents involving probable direct and deliberate obstruction of justice, witness tampering, perjury and abuse of power" but held off because of concerns by Starr's office and the Justice Department that disclosure would compromise pending investigations.

    Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) later assailed Schippers for airing unsubstantiated charges. "His Joe McCarthyite beginning was outrageous," Lofgren said.

    With that confrontation, the committee concluded a two-month inquiry right where it started, with little new information beyond Starr's referral and the tens of thousands of pages of testimony he gathered but with the same sharp split about its meaning.

    The closing arguments by Schippers and his Democratic counterpart, Abbe D. Lowell, offered a familiar clash about the evidence and the magnitude of the president's offenses in concealing his affair with Lewinsky.

    "The president," Schippers said sharply, "has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people. He lied to his Cabinet. He lied to his top aides. And now he's lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There's no one left to lie to."

    Like White House lawyers before him, Lowell acknowledged that Clinton misled but insisted it was not perjury. Even it was, he dismissed the matter as trivial compared with the actions that led the committee to vote for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. "Unlike the case in 1974, Bill Clinton's alleged crimes are not those of an errant president but . . . of an unfaithful husband," Lowell said, adding later, "The more we all try to dress ourselves up in the clothes of Watergate, the more we see they simply do not fit."

    The day's developments had all the participants playing out their assigned roles as they moved toward a denouement that appeared preordained. No member broke from party ranks as opening statements dragged on until about 9:30 p.m. By all accounts, the committee will approve at least one article of impeachment when it begins voting today and will defeat a Democratic censure resolution as early as Saturday.

    So certain of the outcome was outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that he sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to all 435 House members yesterday "to inform you of the possibility that the House may need to be in session next week." If the Judiciary Committee makes a recommendation on impeachment, Gingrich wrote, lawmakers would have a chance to read the panel's report Wednesday and begin voting on articles Thursday.

    While a committee vote for impeachment seemed assured, the details were still in flux. With 21 of the 37 seats on the panel, Republicans can lose no more than two members to pass out any of the four articles, which will be voted on individually.

    The GOP members appeared united in support of the article alleging perjury before a grand jury, and only one member, Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), had indicated that he likely would defect on a separate perjury charge involving the Jones deposition.

    Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said Lowell's two-hour presentation yesterday raised a number of questions about whether the obstruction of justice article would hold up under scrutiny. "He poked some holes and we want to see if they are good holes," he said. While Hutchinson was the only Republican to express reservations over that article, several others have yet to endorse it.

    Most vulnerable appeared to be the fourth article, alleging that Clinton abused the power of his office by lying to the American people and "frivolously" asserting executive privilege during the Starr investigation. Hutchinson and fellow Republicans Steve Chabot (Ohio), Howard Coble (N.C.) and George W. Gekas (Pa.) have voiced concern about citing the executive privilege fight as an impeachable offense.

    Republicans plan to try to amend some of the articles to deal with any qualms, but Democrats said last night that they will refuse to offer any amendments of their own to soften the language and raised the possibility that they will not cooperate with GOP efforts to rewrite them. Thus, if Republicans fracture on changes, the committee could be forced to vote up or down on the most expansive language, risking support of members who consider it excessive.

    The White House harbored no hopes of influencing the process in the committee, although it issued a final entreaty. "Let me make just one plea to the members of the House of Representatives on behalf of the President of the United States," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig. "Before you vote to impeach and remove the President, read the defense of the President . . . and then be guided by your conscience and your judgment as to the national interest."

    Craig derided Schippers's report to the committee as filled with "innuendo, anger and unfair, unsubstantiated charges." And committee Democrats issued their own analysis of it, rebutting a number of factual and interpretive points.

    Responding to Democratic complaints that the White House did not have a chance to see the proposed articles of impeachment before presenting its defense, Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) agreed yesterday to invite White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff back to the committee for one final rebuttal. But Ruff declined the invitation.

    For all of the partisan squabbling, the debate among the members began last night in a grave atmosphere as members contemplated the momentous nature of what was before them.

    "We stand poised on the edge of a constitutional cliff, staring into the void below into which we have jumped only twice before in our history," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat and only remaining veteran from the committee that voted to impeach Nixon in the same room. "Some encourage us to take this fateful leap, but I fear that we are about to inflict irreparable damage on our nation if we do."

    Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) argued that Clinton's continued support among the public indicates that he should not be evicted from the White House. "The people elected the president, they still support him," he said. "We have no right to overturn the considered judgment of the American people."

    Other Democrats emphasized the ramifications far beyond the political landscape in the nation's capital. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who has been championing censure, said prolonging the process might cause "disruptions in the financial markets to the detriment of our national economy."

    But as they have for months, the two sides talked right past each other. "William Jefferson Clinton must be called to account as the Constitution provides," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). "He must be impeached and called before the Senate to answer for the harm he has done."

    Republicans pronounced themselves baffled by the president's nuanced argument that he misled but did not lie. "By any common-sense measure the president did not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). "Many people have gone to jail for doing what the president did."

    And they found public sentiment an unimpressive reason to vote no. "I will not cave in and let our nation be ruled by polls [or] whims," said Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.).

    The day's hearing began with Lowell's summation, delivered in snappy rhythm as he mixed frequent video and audio snippets with weighty constitutional arguments.

    Lowell played portions of Clinton's deposition in the Jones case, which until yesterday had been released only in transcript form. To show how the president could have been confused by definitions, Lowell highlighted an 11-minute segment in which Clinton sat quietly as lawyers around him debated the meaning of "sexual relations" to be used during his interrogation.

    Drawing from Starr's own Nov. 19 testimony before the committee, Lowell spliced together a rapid succession of snippets, showing the independent counsel saying he "cannot recall" and would have to "search my recollection" in answer to various Democratic questions. If even Starr admitted that memories can be fuzzy, Lowell argued, then the committee should not penalize Clinton because of his muddled answers under oath.

    Unlike White House lawyers, who have treated Lewinsky gingerly throughout the 11 months of scandal, Lowell also launched an assault on the former intern's credibility, suggesting that she lied to her friends about aspects of her affair with Clinton and admitted to Tripp that she "was brought up with lies."

    During Watergate, Lowell noted, secret tapes showed the president orchestrating a massive cover-up using the CIA and IRS. During this case, he cracked, secret tapes showed "Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp talking about going shopping."

    Schippers followed Lowell with a longer and decidedly more dry presentation. While he too used portions of Clinton's testimony -- these clips showing him bobbing and weaving when answering whether he had sex with Lewinsky or was ever alone with her -- Schippers methodically walked through the evidence in detail, even offering charts showing the times of various telephone calls.

    Scoffing at suggestions that Clinton's actions were simply the understandable actions of a man whose privacy was being invaded, Schippers pointed to the president's answers to 81 questions sent to him by the committee.

    "Although for the most part the questions could have been answered with a simple 'admit' or 'deny,' the president elected to follow the pattern of selective memory, reference to other testimony, blatant untruths, artful distortions, outright lies and half truths -- the blackest lies of all," Schippers said.

    On at least 23 of the 81 questions, he added, Clinton professed that he could not remember, "This from a man who is renowned for his remarkable memory, for his amazing ability to recall details."

    Unlike Lowell, Schippers focused less on the constitutional question of whether the offenses alleged amount to the "high crimes and misdemeanors" defined as the standard for impeachment. But he seemed exasperated that the allegations against Clinton were thought by some not to be serious enough to consider removing the president from office.

    "If this isn't enough, what is?" he asked. "How far can the standard be lowered without completely compromising the office?"

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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