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Legislators Clash Over Impeachment

December 19, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In an extraordinary day of tense and partisan debate, the House closed in Friday night on impeachment of President Clinton _ the first time a chief executive has been cited for high crimes and misdemeanors on the floor of Congress in 130 years.

Democrats defended their man in the White House to the end, setting a walk-out of the chamber for Saturday’s historic proceedings to protest the Republicans’ refusal to permit a vote on censure.

``Perjury and obstruction of justice cannot be reconciled with the office of the president of the United States,″ Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde argued on a day made all the more remarkable by an ongoing campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and a stunning admission of marital infidelity by the incoming speaker of the House.

An Associated Press telephone survey of House members found 219 lawmakers said they would support at least one article of impeachment, one more than a majority. Another 201 were opposed.

Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt implored Republicans to allow a vote to censure Clinton, thus sparing a scandal-weary public the spectacle of a Senate trial on allegations stemming from the president’s efforts to cover up a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

``You get to vote your vote of conscience and I respect that right,″ the Missouri Democrat said to majority Republicans in a debate that stretched from early morning until 10 p.m. at night. ``All we’re asking for is that we get to vote our conscience.″

Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., conceded that ``unless a miracle occurs,″ there would be enough Republican votes on Saturday to impeach Clinton on at least one of four articles. A Senate trial of uncertain duration would follow next year, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding.

Clinton spent the day at the White House, monitoring damage reports from the U.S. airstrikes against Iraq as well as the momentous events unfolding on Capitol Hill. He spent about an hour with Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who sought the meeting to discuss the case against the president.

From the White House, First Lady Hillary Clinton voiced support for her husband. ``In this holiday season ... we in our country ought to practice reconciliation,″ she said, adding that Americans share her ``approval and pride″ in the president’s work.

Senior administration officials said Mrs. Clinton planned to go to the Capitol on Saturday to rally Democrats before the impeachment vote.

In addition, Democratic sources said Democratic lawmakers intend to march en masse out of the House chamber after Republicans crush their attempt to substitute censure for impeachment. They intend to return in time to vote against the articles of impeachment.

Two Democrats, Reps. Bill Lipinski of Illinois and Louise Slaughter of New York, assuming impeachment would pass, suggested Clinton follow the example Richard Nixon set during Watergate and resign.

``I think the results of a meteor strike are more likely than the resignation of the president,″ Vice President Al Gore said in one of a string of interviews. ``He is just not going to do that.″

The House chamber was crowded with lawmakers, the galleries above open to the curious. Spectators clutching visitors’ passes lined up in the Capitol for a glimpse. Jim McBride of Long Beach, N.J., said: ``I had to be here to see history in the making, one of the most important things we’ll ever see in our lifetime.″

Not since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House has Congress brought impeachment proceedings to the floor of the House. Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868, but remained in office when the Senate fell one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to remove him.

A quarter-century ago, Nixon resigned during Watergate rather than face certain impeachment in the House.

Administration officials were planning a post-impeachment offensive, beginning with a visit by Democratic congressional leaders to the White House on Saturday after the historic House vote.

In the House, the proceedings were partisan from the outset. Democrats, underscoring their desire to put the impeachment proceedings on hold until the airstrikes were over, tried but failed to adjourn the House before debate began.

Hyde, the 74-year-old Illinois Republican who presided over the Judiciary Committee’s impeachment probe, was first to speak. ``The people’s trust has been betrayed,″ he said. ``The nation’s chief executive has shown himself incapable of enforcing its laws, for he has corrupted the rule of law by his perjury and his obstruction of justice.″

But Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who served in Congress during Watergate, countered: ``Impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up an extramarital affair.″

In the hours that followed, the debate was emotional and partisan. Lawmakers sounded troubled at times as they rose, one by one, to read remarks some had written in longhand.

After nearly four hours of debate, only two lawmakers had announced they would cross party lines.

Impeachment requires ``a direct abuse of power ... a crime comparable to treason or bribery,″ argued Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. He added that Clinton’s behavior, while indefensible, didn’t warrant impeachment.

From the other side, Rep. Paul McHale, D-Pa., declared himself a ``deeply disappointed Democrat″ and said he would vote for impeachment.

The four articles of impeachment all stem from Clinton’s efforts to conceal his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

The first alleges presidential perjury before Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury in August, when Clinton was asked about the relationship. The second alleges perjury in a sworn deposition Clinton gave in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.

The third article alleges obstruction of justice by Clinton, in connection with Ms. Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony, his conversations with presidential secretary Betty Currie about her testimony, and other issues. The fourth alleges that Clinton lied to Congress in written answers he provided to 81 Judiciary Committee questions about the evidence.

The House was decorous throughout, but tempers flared just off the floor at one point. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., confronted Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. for referring to a quotation from President Kennedy during debate.

``Anybody who’s been to a racist organization ... has no right invoking my uncle’s name,″ he shouted.

The historical significance of the day seemed to weigh heaviest on the 40 House members retiring at year’s end.

Rep. W.G. Hefner, D-N.C., said the issue presented ``the most troubling vote I’ve cast in 24 years″ in Congress.

Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., said he had talked to former President Gerald R. Ford and Bob Dole in the last 48 hours. Both told him they would vote to impeach, he reported.

Some Democrats expressed fury at Republican tactics. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and Maxine Waters both called the proceedings a ``coup d’etat.″

Over and over again, Republicans insisted that impeachment was unrelated to sex, and was being sought because of perjury and obstruction of justice.

But a Thursday evening confession of marital infidelity by Rep. Bob Livingston, the incoming House speaker, injected a volatile new ingredient into the proceedings.

There was no overt mention of the subject during debate, but Democrats weren’t so reluctant away from the House floor. ``The only word that comes to mind is hypocrite,″ said Waters. ``The hypocrisy that is demonstrated by my friends on the other side of the aisle is absolutely stunning.″

Some lawmakers used the occasion to mourn an inside-the-Beltway culture of savagery that has developed in recent years, as political leaders and appointees of both parties have been brought down.

``The politics of smear and slash and burn must end,″ said Gephardt.

Said King: ``We are a nation consumed by scandal. We are driving good people from government.″

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