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Impeachment Debate Set; Livingston Admits Marital Indiscretions

Livingston Speaker-designate Bob Livingston emerges Thursday from a meeting of the House Republican leadership. (AFP Photo)

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A1

    House Republicans decided yesterday to open debate on the impeachment of President Clinton this morning even as U.S. forces continued to attack Iraq and the new GOP leader, Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (La.), acknowledged his own past sexual "indiscretions."

    After a one-day delay for the military strike, the House at 9 a.m. today will take up four articles of impeachment alleging "high crimes and misdemeanors" by the president, and the White House all but gave up any hopes of prevailing as many of the last undeclared Republicans came out against Clinton.

    The latest development in a week that seemed to defy imagination came when Livingston disclosed that he had "on occasion strayed from my marriage," making his confession to Republican colleagues just hours after deciding to call the House back to session to consider charges that Clinton lied under oath about his own infidelity with a former White House intern.

    The revelation further stirred up a capital already churning over questions of private behavior, public accountability and the duties of patriotism. With so many political and geopolitical crises merging into one, the White House and Congress struggled to keep balance at the end of a volatile day.

    At the same time Clinton was supervising the second wave of the largest military strike of his presidency, he defended himself against charges that he engineered the confrontation with Iraq to head off the seeming certainty of impeachment. And at the same time the House voted almost unanimously to express support for the troops, Republicans opted to resume their constitutional clash with Clinton, disregarding angry Democrats who claimed it would be un-American to impeach the commander-in-chief with forces in the field.

    "That is wrong!" shouted House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) at an appearance with fellow Democrats who demanded that impeachment wait until the attack on Iraq ended. "That is wrong! That is wrong! That is wrong!"

    But amid deep Republican skepticism about Clinton's motives, Livingston concluded that the House could not let itself be taken hostage by a foreign crisis, noting that impeachment hearings proceeded against President Richard M. Nixon during the final months of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

    "How do we assume when that mission will be complete? There's no way to know," Livingston said on the House floor. "We can't anticipate what Saddam Hussein can do and yet we cannot refrain from pushing forward with the people's business on this issue."

    The sharp conflict had more than rhetorical consequences. Because Democrats refused to go along with the rules waiver necessary for the two-day schedule favored by Republican leaders, the debate will open this morning under normal rules that technically allow only an hour for discussion before a vote on a privileged resolution such as the impeachment articles. But congressional leaders were working last night to put together an arrangement that would still allow debate to be extended so that members on both sides can speak their mind on what for many will be the most important vote of their political careers.

    Republicans had planned for 18 hours of deliberations to be followed by separate votes on Saturday on each of the four articles alleging that Clinton committed perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power to cover up his extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    While Livingston was fighting with Democrats over the timing and format, unknown to most of his fellow lawmakers he was also dealing with his own personal troubles that were about to erupt into public view.

    At 4 p.m., he huddled with fellow Republican leaders to inform them that he would be disclosing his past "personal relationships" because of pending media reports and, sources said, he indicated at that session that he was open to stepping down before he has even been formally sworn in as speaker. Then at a 6 p.m. meeting of the full Republican conference, after a lengthy discussion of the floor procedures for impeachment, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) recognized Livingston, who surprised the room by reading from a two-page statement.

    "I have decided to inform my colleagues and my constituents that during my 33-year marriage to my wife, Bonnie, I have on occasion strayed from my marriage and doing so nearly cost me my marriage and my family," Livingston said. "I sought marriage and spiritual counseling and have received forgiveness from my wife and family, for which I am eternally grateful. This chapter was a small but painful part of the past in an otherwise wonderful marriage."

    Livingston said he was making this acknowledgment because unnamed individuals were trying to publicize his past affairs through the media on the eve of the impeachment debate. Livingston offered few details, but vowed he would not "be intimidated by these efforts."

    Recognizing the political sensitivity, Livingston sought to distinguish his conduct from the allegations that led to Clinton's political dilemma. "I want to assure everyone that these indiscretions were not with employees on my staff," he said, "and I have never been asked to testify under oath about them."

    Livingston concluded at the later 90-minute session with the full caucus by saying "my fate is in your hands," although members said he never formally offered to resign at that meeting. He was received by three sustained standing ovations that could be heard through the closed doors.

    Among the first to speak out in defense of Livingston was Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who emphasized that everyone has sinned and spoke of the same process that he suggested for Clinton when his affair with Lewinsky surfaced: confession, contrition, cleansing. Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) later issued a statement praising Livingston's "great decorum" and decrying "mudslinging tactics."

    Most Republicans argued that Livingston's behavior hardly compared to Clinton's because it did not involve deception in civil and criminal proceedings and they expressed anguish at his situation. "I call this the festival of the cannibals," said Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.). Added Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), "I couldn't be more proud to have him as speaker. Everyone encounters adversity and problems and mistakes and it's how you react to those that are the measure of the person."

    While Livingston did not identify to the full GOP caucus who was investigating his past, sources said he told colleagues at the earlier leadership meeting, "I've been Larry Flynt-ed."

    Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, offered $1 million in October for information about extramarital affairs by members of Congress and his bounty seemed to bear some fruit. "Bob Livingston is an individual who we have under investigation," Flynt confirmed last night. He later told the Associated Press that four women had come forward alleging affairs with Livingston.

    Livingston became the latest House Republican to find his past excavated as he was preparing to sit in judgment of Clinton. In recent months, House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton (Ind.), who has aggressively investigated the White House; Rep. Helen Chenoweth (Idaho), a vocal Clinton critic; and Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (Ill.), who oversaw the impeachment inquiry, all admitted adulterous affairs in response to media reports.

    Livingston's admission is sure to color the debate on the floor this morning as Republicans recoiled and immediately assumed it resulted from a sneak attack by the White House.

    "Nothing this White House does will shock me," said Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). Asked if he believed Clinton advisers planted the story, he retorted, "Do you think the sun will come up in the morning?"

    Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.), a moderate who announced his support for impeachment on Wednesday, was fuming after the GOP meeting at what he saw as the calculated destruction of Clinton adversaries. "Victims all seem to fall into the same pattern," he said. "Anyone who is perceived as a threat to the administration is immediately attacked."

    Republicans offered no proof to back up their presumptions of White House involvement and several Clinton aides adamantly denied knowing anything about the matter yesterday. But either way, it further poisoned the mood among Republicans on the eve of the impeachment debate -- and probably gave House Democrats ammunition to argue that Clinton should not be judged too harshly for human frailties that afflict even leading Republican figures.

    While contrasting it with the allegations that Clinton lied under oath, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) nonetheless took a dim view of Livingston's admission during an appearance on CNN's "Crossfire" last night. "The bottom line is Livingston lied," Sanford said. "He lied to his wife." He added that "it makes for a horribly confused grand jury setting. . . . It does cloud the issue, no doubt about it."

    Emotions already were sure to be feverish on the floor this morning just by virtue of the partisan schism that has preceded the first presidential impeachment debate by the House in 130 years. And even before last night's Livingston disclosure, the clash over the propriety of going forward amid the military strikes on Iraq had only inflamed the situation.

    While the two parties joined together to pass a resolution supporting the troops on a 417 to 5 vote, the suspicion over the attack's timing polarized the members and influenced the Republican decision to reschedule the impeachment debate.

    But outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) spoke out strongly in favor of the strike, diverging sharply from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Armey and other Republicans who questioned whether the impeachment-eve strike was motivated more by Clinton's domestic difficulties than sincere commitment to containing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

    In what may be his final floor speech, Gingrich said the two issues should not be confused. "We have a chance to say today to the world: No matter what our constitutional process, whether it is an election eve or it is the eve of a constitutional vote, no matter what our debates at home, we are, as a nation, prepared to lead the world," he told the House.

    For his part, Clinton yesterday tartly dismissed the criticism from Lott and others, calling his decision on Iraq "the right thing for the country" and denying that he would ever order military action for political reasons.

    "I don't think any serious person would believe that any president would do such a thing," he said before an Oval Office meeting with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry H. Shelton and other advisers. "I don't believe any reasonably astute person in Washington would believe that Secretary Cohen and General Shelton and the whole rest of the national security team would participate in such an action."

    The decision to proceed even as bombs continue to fall meant that both sides enter today's impeachment debate uncertain how it will proceed. As a protest of the timing, Democrats plan to offer a motion to adjourn at the start of the session, which will surely be voted down. After that, the members can debate for only an hour under the rules.

    To go beyond that would require complex parliamentary maneuvering and cooperation between the parties, but both sides want the discussion to last for more than 60 minutes and so are searching for accommodation to make that happen.

    Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who will be chairing the impeachment debate in place of Gingrich and Livingston who both declined, said that he believed a vote could come as early as Friday evening. "I guarantee that Democratic members will be sick of it too, " he said. "The vast majority know how they are going to vote. They want to get it over with and go home.'

    In that vein, another four key undeclared Republicans yesterday announced their support for impeachment: Reps. Heather Wilson (N.M.), Stephen Horn (Calif.), Harris W. Fawell (Ill.) and Joe Skeen (N.M.).

    "I cannot look away from the truth and the evidence that supports it," said Wilson."We are a nation ruled by laws."

    Altogether, 24 critical Republicans once seen as potential supporters by the White House have come out against Clinton in the last three days, while only one GOP member indicated he would vote against impeachment. There were so few uncommitted Republicans left that the moderates who had been consulting via a telephone conference call did not bother yesterday.

    Clinton plans to meet with one of those few today, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), and the official White House line was the Yogi Berra mantra, "It ain't over 'til it's over," as spokesman James E. Kennedy put it. Theoretically, Clinton could still avert impeachment if every single undeclared Republican were to side with him or the debate changes some minds.

    But privately, attention was already focused on the Senate and the prospect of avoiding a trial there. "My sense of it is everybody's pretty much given up on the House," said a former administration official who has been helping the White House.

    "It's pretty clear these guys are going to do it because they can," said a White House aide. "They're drunk on impeachment power and they've lost all sense of institutional inhibition."

    Yet as the White House researches ways to avoid a Senate trial, Lott appeared to close the door on any agreement to censure the president without a trial. "The Senate will do its constitutional duty," he said on CNN. "We will go to a trial and there won't be any deal-making as we begin our job in the Senate."

    Staff writers Lorraine Adams, Ceci Connolly, Spencer S. Hsu, Howard Kurtz, Lois Romano and Rene Sanchez contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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