WASHINGTON -- Considering its historic dimensions, the House Judiciary Committee's vote to impeach President Clinton was carried out in a remarkably perfunctory fashion.
There was no high drama. On the critical first article of impeachment, there were no 11th-hour defections by either party. The vote was the usual 21-16. The whole thing had the quality of a ritual.
The same could be said of the president's last-gasp attempt to appear more contrite. He described himself as "profoundly sorry" for his "wrongful conduct." But he avoided admitting that he lied when he testified before a federal grand jury in August, the critical point in the whole case. Once again, instead, Clinton apologized for having "misled" the American people.
The president's appearance in the Rose Garden also had a kind of ritualistic quality. He wore that stern look that he adopts in times of crisis -- and that he wore in January, when he delivered his now-famous finger-waving denial of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
There is no way to predict whether Clinton's show of contrition was convincing enough to save him from impeachment when the issue reaches the floor of the House next week.
But the behavior of both the committee and the president has already spoken volumes about the nature of the partisan bitterness and hostility that have become the distinguishing features of politics in Washington these days. And that, in turn, has raised hard questions about whether the government can function at all in Clinton's final two years.
The animus between Republicans and Democrats in the House was evident not just in the Judiciary Committee's voting but also in the increasingly acid way in which they dealt with one another. The Republican committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, is known to be personally offended by some of the barbs directed at him by the Democrats. And some Democrats on the committee say privately that they have been astonished and angered by what they consider Hyde's partisanship.
The relationship between the dominant Republican % conservatives and the White House is clearly poisonous. It is bad enough to raise doubts among both Republicans and Democrats about whether any serious legislative initiatives are possible in the aftermath of the impeachment inquiry. Dealing with issues as politically touchy as Social Security reform requires a measure of trust between the two parties.
As one veteran House Republican put it privately the other day, "You have to be able to sit down and have a cup of coffee together."
Just how the situation plays out depends largely, of course, on whether the full House votes for impeachment and forces a trial in the Senate. That could require weeks or months that would further exacerbate the partisanship that, in the Senate, is less visible but lies just under the surface.
In political terms, the most striking thing about the Republicans' attitude and actions all along has been that they fly so directly in the face of public opinion.
Even as the committee approved articles of impeachment, overnight opinion polls showed Americans, by 2-to-1 or better, opposed to the action and blaming the Republicans for excessive partisanship.
The Republican response has been, first, that Congress cannot govern by poll findings and, second, that the public will eventually recognize that the action was justified by the nature of the offenses. The Republicans keep arguing that voters supported President Richard M. Nixon at the beginning of the Watergate investigation a quarter-century ago.
But that analysis falls short in two particulars. First, opinion against Nixon began to turn with Senate hearings in the summer of 1973, a full year before the House Judiciary Committee drafted articles of impeachment. Secondly, the original party-line defense of Nixon by Republicans in Congress suffered a steady stream of defections as the serious nature of the crimes became clearer.
In that situation, the controlling Democrats, including Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. of the Judiciary Committee, decided early on that they would never force impeachment without substantial enough Republican support, so that the action would not be seen as partisan.
The move to pass the articles of impeachment wasn't scheduled until the Democrats knew that there were at least a half-dozen Republicans ready to go along on the articles of impeachment against their president.
It was a step of historic dimensions that everyone recognized went far beyond partisanship.
Pub Date: 12/12/98