WASHINGTON -- In a momentous move that capped a tumultuous, nearly yearlong scandal, the House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to recommend that President Clinton be removed from office, approving articles of presidential impeachment for only the third time in history.
Without a single Democratic vote, the Republican-led committee approved the first three of four articles of impeachment. Those accuse Clinton of lying before a federal grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, lying in the Paula Corbin Jones case and obstruction of justice.
The remaining article -- charging Clinton with abuse of power -- is to be decided by the committee today, to be followed by a Democratic-proposed censure resolution that is expected to fail.
The solemn vote on the first article, charging that Clinton "willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony" to a federal grand jury, came just minutes after a stone-faced Clinton stepped before cameras in the White House Rose Garden and apologized to the nation again for "all I have done wrong in words and deeds."
The historic Judiciary Committee votes took place in the same room where President Richard M. Nixon's fate was debated a quarter-century ago, and it ensured that articles of impeachment would be sent to the full House for a showdown on the floor scheduled for Thursday.
If impeachment is approved in the House -- which appears evenly split, with about two dozen Republicans undecided -- the matter would move to the Senate for only the second presidential impeachment trial.
The Senate needs a two-thirds majority to remove a president from office. For now, that is considered highly unlikely because Republicans hold a majority of only 55-45.
After several hours of debate -- marked by fierce partisan rancor -- the committee approved the first impeachment article, with little fanfare or drama, in a 21-16 party-line vote.
"Article One is approved," the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, announced.
"The fact that this vote was done strictly along party lines speaks for itself," Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said after the vote.
Democrats on the committee expressed dismay at the magnitude of punishment being drafted against the president, in defiance of public opinion, for misdeeds that stem from a sexual affair.
"I can't believe we are going to do this when 65 to 70 percent of Americans are begging us not to do this," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, referring to polls that have consistently shown about two-thirds of the public opposed to impeachment.
Other Democrats predicted that Americans would "wake up" Monday morning appalled at the committee's work and wondering how it had been allowed to happen.
But committee Republicans disagreed, saying that the public has been following the proceedings closely and will hardly be shocked by the outcome. "I think you almost have to have been living in a cave to not realize something is happening here," said Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio.
Two hours later, at 6: 23 p.m., the committee passed the second article, alleging that Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky in his sworn deposition in the Jones sexual-misconduct suit.
A single Republican, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, voted with the Democrats in opposing that perjury article.
Rep. Thomas M. Barrett of Wisconsin, echoing a theme among his fellow Democratic committee members, said he couldn't "sit here with a straight face" and say he believed that Clinton told the truth when he testified that he didn't recall being alone with Lewinsky. But Barrett said, "Impeachment may not be the sanction that is necessary here."
Republicans argued that the transgression was, indeed, grave.
"What's the message we send to every victim of sexual harassment in the workplace?" asked Rep. James E. Rogan of California. "You better keep your mouth shut, because if you don't have the courage to come forward, the defendant can come in and lie with impunity?"
At the end of a 12-hour day, the committee cast another party-line 21-16 vote for the third article, which alleges that Clinton obstructed justice and tried to thwart independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation by concealing evidence, tampering with witnesses, seeking a job for Lewinsky in exchange for her silence and making false statements to his staff.
"This article demonstrates the web and deceit and cover-up constructed by the president to conceal his lies in the Paula Jones case," said Chabot.
But Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler said the obstruction of justice charge -- as well as the abuse of power count -- didn't pass the "giggle test."
"They're laughable as well as outrageous," the New York lawmaker said.
The fourth article, which charges Clinton with "frivolously and corruptly" asserting executive privilege to block aides' testimony before Starr's grand jury, is considered the weakest of the charges. Yesterday, Republican Rep. Ed Pease of Indiana said he would vote against it, signaling that the article may not pass the committee when it is considered today.
Only twice before in history has a House committee voted to send articles of presidential impeachment to the full House. The Judiciary Committee approved a bill of impeachment against Nixon in 1974, but Nixon resigned before the House voted.
Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House in 1868 but was acquitted by a single vote in a Senate trial.
The bitter partisanship that has dogged the proceedings from the start defined yesterday's historic deliberations, with furious battles erupting the moment the panel began debate.
Democrats requested that the panel articulate what specific statements by Clinton have been deemed to be perjurious by the authors of the impeachment bill.
"I am utterly amazed at where we are here," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer. "We are seeking to remove the president. And we cannot get from anyone thus far a list of what allegedly perjurious statements have been made."
The New York Democrat said such a list was required "so that we, the full House and, if it comes to it, the Senate, will know exactly what we're talking about." He noted that, when a perjury indictment is brought in a court of law, the specific words that are alleged to be perjurious must be identified.
Committee Democrats asserted that Republicans had left the articles purposely vague to avoid reminding Americans just how inconsequential the specific allegations are.
Republicans referred their counterparts to the specific allegations contained in the presentation that their chief counsel, David Schippers, laid before the committee Thursday. They denounced the Democrats' request as a "smoke screen," and a "clever ruse" to limit the evidence the Senate would be allowed to considered if it holds an impeachment trial.
Unlike a criminal proceeding, the GOP argued, the impeachment process requires no such specificity. "This is not an indictment. This is not a criminal proceeding," said Hyde. "This is impeachment."
Hyde said the articles against Clinton were drafted in the style and format of the Watergate impeachment articles. "This is not a bill of particulars," he said. "These are the articles of impeachment."
Earlier yesterday, Hyde delivered a lawyerly, yet forceful, endorsement of impeachment, saying it should be adopted, not out of vengeance or vindictiveness, but "out of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law."
The committee chairman said the question boiled down to whether an oath to tell the truth is a "mere ceremonial formality" or meaningful. "And this is why the president's lying under oath ++ is so serious," Hyde said. "It is an assault on the rule of law. It cheapens the oath. It subverts our system of government."
Hyde said Clinton's offense was not "an occasional minor garden-variety perjury," but "calculated lawlessness that takes us for fools and chips away at our legal system."
The president's fiercest critic on the committee, Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who called for Clinton's impeachment more than a year ago, argued that Clinton, "through his conduct and his arrogance," had "thrown a gauntlet at the feet of the Congress" that required an impeachment vote. He framed the debate as a choice "between good and evil."
Adding to the heatedly partisan climate, Barr accused the White House of spreading a story about his appearance before a white supremacist group last summer. Barr acknowledged delivering a speech before the convention of the Council of Conservative Citizens, but said he did not share the group's views.
Democrats, in their opening statements, pushed for a censure ++ resolution and tried to jolt the public into seeing what was at stake with impeachment.
"This has been the scariest week of my life," said Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida. "Wake up, America, they are about to impeach our president. They are about to reverse two national elections. Wake up, America, our government is about to shut down. If you're sick of all-Monica, all-the-time, you ain't seen nothing yet."
Rep. William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts said: "This is a
capital case. This case involves the death penalty, politically speaking, for the executive branch of government."
Pub Date: 12/12/98