WASHINGTON -- As the House hurtles toward a final decision on impeaching President Clinton, a disbelieving nation could be in for a shock.
"The American people may wake up next Friday morning," said Rep. Charles Schumer of New York, "to discover that the House of Representatives has indeed impeached the president."
Most Americans don't expect it to happen, according to a poll conducted last week. But a profoundly divided House may well vote this week to recommend Clinton's removal from office, just one month after an election that seemed to have made impeachment impossible.
The latest count shows Clinton at least a half-dozen votes short of the support he needs to avoid becoming only the second president to suffer the ignominy of impeachment. The House could vote as early as Thursday.
How exactly did things get this far? Didn't the election prove that impeachment was a loser, politically speaking? And where -- or when -- will all this finally end?
According to those on both sides, the country has been drawn in recent weeks to the brink of a constitutional crisis, not by a single act, but by a series of post-election events. They include: White House miscalculations. Thinking that the threat of impeachment had passed, Clinton and his advisers let their guard down at the exact moment the danger was starting to increase. Though he now recognizes how perilous his position has become, the president is described as being in a state of "disbelief" about the week's events.
A scaled-down House inquiry. By avoiding a lengthy investigation, Republicans guaranteed that there would be more members of their party voting on impeachment than in the new Congress that takes over next month. It also meant that the decisive votes against Clinton might be cast by Republican representatives who were defeated for re-election.
Democratic election victories. Surprisingly, the loss of five Republican House seats enhanced, rather than reduced, the likelihood of impeachment.
Last month's setback at the polls jolted Republicans and forced the resignation of Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose final blunder was relying too heavily on impeachment as a campaign issue. That post-election chaos in the House strengthened the hand of Rep. Tom DeLay, the fiercest impeachment hawk in the Republican leadership, who has emerged as a pivotal figure in the drive to punish the president.
Senate awaits trial
With the critical House vote only days away, no one can say with precision how the crisis will end. It remains unlikely that Clinton will be forced from office by the Senate, even if he is impeached by the House.
No Democratic support for impeachment has materialized in the Senate, and it would take at least 12 Democratic votes there to meet the constitutional requirement for removing the president.
But should a majority of House members vote to impeach, the matter would be sent to the Senate for further action, probably early next month. The Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, has promised a trial, which he has said could take from a few days to a few weeks. The only other presidential impeachment trial, of Andrew Johnson in 1868, lasted three months.
In some respects, it's not surprising that the severe sanction of impeachment may soon be Clinton's legacy. From the outset, there were warnings that halting the process would be extremely tough once it got rolling.
"Putting this thing behind us is not going to be an easy thing to do," prophesied Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the former Democratic leader, in a speech Sept. 9, the day independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigative report reached the Capitol with two van-loads of evidence.
The House vote the next month, authorizing a formal impeachment inquiry, was expected. What happened a few weeks later, on Election Day, was not.
Gingrich, stunned by his party's unexpected loss of seats, acknowledged that Republicans had underestimated how quickly the public had become fed up with the investigation of Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his testimony before a grand jury.
The next day, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde went public with a plan for a pared-back review of Starr's material. The inquiry could be finished by mid-December, he announced, assuming the White House cooperated. There would just one witness, Starr himself, plus a letter that was being sent to Clinton, seeking responses to 81 questions that grew out of the independent counsel's report.
"Clearly there are not enough votes to move this through the House," Rep. Mark E. Souder, a conservative Republican from Indiana, said a week after the election, as he declared his opposition to impeachment.
For the Republican leadership of the House, however, stopping impeachment was never an option. Many, if not most, House Republicans were personally committed to it. Moreover, the party's strongest supporters wouldn't stand for a retreat. The activists, mainly social and religious conservatives, were as furious as ever with what they saw as Clinton's immoral behavior and his pathetic lies.
There was also the matter of cutting the president down to size, politically. Many Republicans resent how deftly Clinton took their conservative message and made it his own. Using themes such as balancing the budget, putting welfare recipients to work and getting tough on crime, he challenged the GOP's hold on its electoral base in the South and the West, where most of the country now lives and presidential elections are won or lost.
'Payback' for Watergate
Finally, for some Republicans, impeachment was a chance to get even. The battle in the House would be a way of settling scores dating back at least as far as Watergate.
"It is payback time," said Roger Stone, a Republican strategist who was close to Richard M. Nixon in his final years. "The Democrats talk about undoing the last election. We think the '74 impeachment [drive] was about undoing the '72 election."
The articles of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee over the past two days would do more than remove Clinton from office. They would also disqualify him from holding any federal office, appointive or elective, for the rest of his life. It is a penalty without precedent in presidential impeachments. To critics, it is the Republicans' way of saying that the Clinton scandal is worse than Watergate.
It has happened so often, it's become a cliche: Whenever Clinton is on top, he seems determined to undermine himself. When his back is to the wall, he's at his best.
The period after the Nov. 3 election appeared to be one of those happy periods. The Paula Corbin Jones case was about to be settled. Republicans were divided over how far to push their inquiry. The public remained firmly opposed to impeachment.
"There was a sense that it was over, and that there didn't need to be any further movement or initiatives," said Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel and one of the president's most visible public defenders. "There was a lull, a letdown."
While the president planned a missile strike on Iraq and his political advisers relaxed, his lawyers prepared answers to the 81 questions from the House. The legalistic language of the replies, aimed more at avoiding a possible perjury indictment than impeachment, "unnecessarily alienated" Republicans in Congress, Davis acknowledged.
After the president's often evasive replies landed on Capitol Hill, some Republicans treated them as the smoking gun they had long been seeking. The written answers largely recycled Clinton's previous statements, but to Republican hard-liners, they were nothing less than an abuse of power. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee made those "false and misleading" answers the basis for the fourth article of impeachment against the president.
Perhaps the 81 answers were a turning point, a last straw that forced wavering Republicans into the impeachment camp. But that interpretation is open to question. Even before the answers were sent to the committee, Republican whip DeLay, the top vote-counter in the House, was predicting that he had the votes to impeach the president.
An ardent conservative, the 51-year-old Texan was among the first to call for Clinton's resignation. Some House members have said DeLay single-handedly revived impeachment after the election seemed to have ruled it out.
Once the incoming speaker, Rep. Robert L. Livingston, made it clear that he wanted to avoid getting swept up in the impeachment fight, DeLay rushed to fill the power vacuum.
Among House Republicans, "Gingrich is the past, Livingston is the future and DeLay is the present," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at the Claremont Colleges in California.
For months, DeLay has worked to keep a censure resolution from reaching the House floor. He is convinced that if Republicans have no alternative to impeachment, their only choice will be to support impeachment. To do otherwise would invite the fury of conservatives for letting Clinton off the hook.
"The internal politics of the Republican Party dictates that they send impeachment to the Senate," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "If impeachment fails, there will be a debate within the party over who lost Clinton."
DeLay's views on impeachment have set the tone for others in the Republican leadership. Censure "means nothing," he has said. At the same time, however, he has attempted to soothe his understandably anxious colleagues. He plays down the momentousness of this week's vote, using lines that other Republicans have started to repeat.
"All impeachment is, it's like a grand jury that looks at the evidence, and the House decides whether that evidence warrants sending it to the Senate for trial," DeLay has said. "That's all it is."
GOP moderates command
The fate of impeachment is in the hands of a now-famous group of Republican moderates, perhaps no more than a dozen in all, who have yet to make up their minds. The president needs at least six of their votes, and it isn't clear what he can do to get them.
One of the undecideds, Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, subscribes to the theory that the charges against Clinton are serious enough, and the divisions within the House are so deep, that a close vote was inevitable.
"I'm not sure if everything before this happened differently we wouldn't be in the same place," he said, minimizing the impact of Clinton's actions since the election and the pressure being applied on wavering members.
Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, another Republican on the fence, says he wouldn't refuse a phone call from Clinton. But he doesn't think it would help him decide whether Clinton's transgressions rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
"There's nothing he can say," explained Ney, who believes that the president has tacitly admitted to lying.
bTC Others, however, want Clinton to confess, openly and directly, that he lied under oath. That's the one thing the president cannot do, his defenders say, because it would amount to a confession that could be used against him in a Senate trial if he is impeached, or in a courtroom if he is prosecuted for perjury after leaving office.
Before flying to the Mideast yesterday, Clinton made another stab at a public apology. It plainly failed to turn the course of impeachment in his favor.
If anything, his comments may have had the opposite effect. Even a Republican ally condemned the president for not delivering a more frank confession.
"It makes it harder for members of Congress to do what I think is the right thing to do," said Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of only six Republicans who have publicly opposed impeachment.
"He makes me think he still doesn't get it."
Pub Date: 12/13/98