WASHINGTON -- Brushing aside the White House's earnest two-day defense, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee unveiled last night four articles of impeachment, charging that President Clinton "has undermined the integrity of his office, . . . brought disrepute to the Presidency" and should be banished from office.
The release of the articles upstaged an insistent pleading of the president's case by Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel. And by capturing public attention, the articles could short-circuit any momentum that might have been building for some punishment short of impeachment.
With the blessing of Democratic leaders, three committee Democrats proposed a toughly worded resolution of censure yesterday, offering it as an alternative punishment for the committee to consider.
Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the panel's chairman, promised to allow the censure resolution to come to a vote in the committee. But the Republican-led Judiciary Committee will almost certainly defeat such a resolution, and House majority whip Tom DeLay is trying to bar any censure resolution from receiving a vote in in the full House.
Acknowledging that Clinton "made false statements concerning his reprehensible behavior," the Democratic resolution asserts that the president "fully deserves the censure and condemnation of the American people and the Congress." White House aides signaled that the president would accept that rebuke, along with a hefty financial penalty.
Only days remain for the president to secure the votes he needs to stave off only the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history. Abbe D. Lowell, the committee's chief Democratic investigator, will sum up the defense today. His Republican counterpart, David Schippers, will press the case for impeachment. Debate and consideration of the articles of impeachment will then begin and could stretch into the weekend.
A historic impeachment vote in the full House is likely next Wednesday or Thursday.
Four draft articles
As strong as the Democratic condemnation was, it paled in comparison to the committee's four draft impeachment articles. The articles charge Clinton with perjury in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-misconduct case, perjury before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury, obstruction of justice and abuse of presidential power.
All four articles conclude with the statement: "William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.
"Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States."
Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a committee Republican who is one of Clinton's most caustic critics, said the impeachment articles were defined by the evidence gathered by the committee, and he vowed to win the committee's approval of each one. "The best thing we can do at this point is to defend them and ensure they get presented to the full House," Barr said.
But Rep. Thomas M. Barrett, a moderate Democrat from Wisconsin who helped write the censure resolution, said the articles indicated that the Republicans, far from weighing the facts, had merely regurgitated the allegations that Starr sent to the House in September.
"We could have seen these same articles the day Ken Starr delivered his report to Congress," Barrett said. "Nothing has changed in three months."
The release of the articles dealt a setback to White House aides, who had begun to gain some confidence that they could narrowly head off impeachment, in part because of Ruff's conciliatory testimony yesterday. Even committee Republicans offered praise for Ruff's eloquent defense.
Yesterday morning, a panel of five former federal prosecutors, including former Republican governor of Massachusetts William Weld, had scored points in testifying that only "foolish" prosecutors would take to court any of the charges against Clinton, since they could probably not win a conviction.
By releasing the articles of impeachment even before Ruff had finished testifying, White House aides said, the Republicans on the committee showed they had no intention of considering Clinton's defense seriously and had undermined Democratic efforts to reach undecided House Republicans.
"There's nothing in the articles, there's nothing in the allegations, there's nothing in the record, there's nothing in the Constitution that brings anything here up to the standard of an impeachable offense," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman.
The articles do not simply recommend the removal of Clinton from office, as the articles against President Richard M. Nixon did in 1974. They recommend that the Senate bar Clinton from ever holding elective office again.
Committee lawyers did not shy away from any of the charges leveled by Starr in his impeachment referral. The two perjury counts allege that Clinton "willfully corrupted and manipulated the judicial process of the United States for his personal gain and exoneration."
The obstruction of justice charge claims that Clinton "prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice" by urging Monica Lewinsky to file a false affidavit denying that she had sexual relations with the president, engaged in a scheme to conceal gifts he had given Lewinsky, helped find her a job to win her silence and lied to White House aides, knowing that they would repeat the lies to a grand jury.
Finally, Republicans charge Clinton with abusing the power of his office by lying to the public and his Cabinet members, knowing they would, in turn, repeat the lies to the public and by "frivolously and corruptly" asserting executive privilege to try to shield aides from questioning before the grand jury. The committee also alleged that Clinton had returned "perjurious, false and misleading" answers to the 81 questions sent to the White House by the committee.
Even some committee members doubt that all the articles will be approved for consideration in the House. Committee lawyers chose to divide the perjury charges into separate counts for lying in the Jones lawsuit and before the Starr grand jury. Some committee Republicans had expressed concerns about impeaching the president for lying in a civil suit that was dismissed and ultimately settled about a matter peripheral to the case.
Adding the issue of the 81 questions to the abuse of power article was meant to bolster a charge that many view as the weakest. Two committee Republicans -- George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania and Ed Pease of Indiana -- have expressed doubts that Clinton's claims of executive privilege could constitute abuse of power, because the Supreme Court found some merit in those claims. If one more Republican joins them, the article would fail before reaching the full House.
In fact, Republican leaders expect the House to defeat the obstruction and abuse-of-power articles. By dividing the perjury charges, the committee could ensure that only the strongest impeachment article passes the House. And that charge -- that Clinton lied to a federal grand jury -- would likely pass by only a few votes, almost exclusively along party lines.
The White House scrambled yesterday to head off even that charge, offering undecided Republican moderates virtually any punishment they sought short of impeachment. White House aides put out the word last night that Clinton would not only sign a harshly worded censure, as the Democrats want, but would voluntarily pay a financial penalty. Earlier, Ruff testified that the president would never pardon himself for any alleged criminal offenses or seek a pardon from any successor.
Yesterday, Weld suggested his own penalty: a sharp rebuke, a written congressional report detailing the president's transgressions for posterity, a signed presidential acknowledgment of wrongdoing, a voluntary fine "to mark the solemnity of the occasion" and an explicit understanding that Clinton could be prosecuted once he leaves office.
White House lawyers said they had not helped draft Weld's proposal but would be open to it.
The Democrats' alternative
Though the White House pleaded for votes and tried to show contrition, committee Democrats offered a written defense with no apologies. They challenged the veracity of Lewinsky's statements and the grounds of the impeachment counts.
Treading where the newly conciliatory Clinton defense team had feared to tread, the Democrats attacked Lewinsky's veracity. They cited her reliance on prescription drugs that may cause memory lapse and argued that some of her accounts were unconvincing. Perhaps most memorably, the Democrats' response stated: "Lewinsky told [Linda] Tripp that she had been reared to lie, lies easily and has a lot of practice."
The Democrats also argued that while Clinton's statements might have been intentionally misleading, they did not constitute illegal perjury. Even if they did, Democrats said, they would not be impeachable, because none of Clinton's actions met the constitutional impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Three Democrats -- Barrett, Rick Boucher of Virginia and William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts -- said they hoped to peel off Republican votes with the censure resolution they proposed yesterday, if it ever came to a vote in the full House. The resolution does not include a fine.
The House Democratic leadership signed on to the censure resolution as the party's official alternative to impeachment.
"We're putting that out as an olive branch in the hope that it will attract not only moderate Republicans but some conservative Republicans as well," Barrett said.
Democrats were buoyed by Hyde's announcement that he would allow the censure resolution to come to a committee vote, even though its defeat along party lines is a foregone conclusion.
House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said yesterday that he had been promised a censure vote in the full House by Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston. But Republican leaders quickly denied that any such promise had been made.
Nevertheless, a Republican leadership aide and fervent opponent of censure conceded that there was concern about Hyde's decision. The sight of committee members debating and voting on a censure resolution could give the alternative legitimacy and create the appearance that Republican leaders were being unfair in blocking any censure vote in the full House.
Pub Date: 12/10/98