WASHINGTON -- House Judiciary Committee Republicans beat back a strongly worded proposal to censure the president yesterday and rammed through one final article of impeachment, charging President Clinton with abusing the powers of his office by lying to Congress.
Defeat of the Democratic censure resolution last night officially ended the impeachment work of the deeply divided Judiciary Committee, which has struggled with the proceedings ever since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr forwarded his investigation report to Congress in September.
After the vote, Republican leaders said they would not allow the full House to vote on a censure resolution.
Earlier in the day and along party lines, the committee approved, 21-16, the Republicans' fourth article of impeachment, setting up a constitutional showdown Thursday, when the full House will consider whether to impeach a president for only the second time in U.S. history.
A two-thirds vote in the Senate would be required to oust Clinton from the White House -- a prospect that seems unlikely because the 45 Senate Democrats are apparently maintaining their ranks in opposition.
Only once before has such a trial been convened, and after three fractious months in 1868, the Senate fell one vote short of removing President Andrew Johnson from office.
This time, Democrats have warned, the trial would have to dwell on the prurient details of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, since many of the charges against the president stem from the nature of their sexual conduct.
A House vote for impeachment would "divide the country, gridlock the government and defy the will of the people," White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig cautioned yesterday.
Democrats presented their censure as a graceful way to avoid such a spectacle. But the committee defeated, 22-14, a resolution to rebuke Clinton for actions that "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the Office of President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him."
The resolution's proponents never expected the proposal to pass the committee, but they hoped the sight of the committee debating and voting on a censure resolution would pressure GOP leaders to schedule a censure vote on the House floor.
That hope receded last night when current House Speaker Newt Gingrich and incoming Speaker Robert L. Livingston made clear they would not allow such a vote.
The House "should not consider censure," Livingston wrote in letter sent to Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois late yesterday.
Gingrich also released a letter opposing a censure vote.
The president's allies expressed regret that Clinton had gone ahead with a trip to Israel instead of fighting the impeachment drive personally.
But the president insisted on pushing forward with official duties, this time trying to shore up the Wye peace accord he had helped forge. Changing the subject has often been a successful tactic for Clinton.
In Washington, Democrats had tried earlier yesterday to ratchet up the pressure on Livingston to schedule a vote on censure, which they believe could attract enough Republican votes to defeat the president's impeachment.
Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, in a letter to Livingston, pointedly alluded to Gingrich, who for four years presided over an ineffective House rent by partisanship.
Failing to give members an impeachment alternative would only ensure those divisions will continue, Gephardt warned.
"If you are committed to allow everyone an opportunity to vote their conscience, then it is imperative that the floor debate make an allowance for a censure," Gephardt wrote.
"This first most important decision for you as a leader will mark more than the fate of impeachment. It will surely mark the kind of leader you will be, and thereby the kind of Congress we can expect under your speakership."
But Republicans on and off the Judiciary Committee continued to argue that censure would violate the Constitution, which does not mention censure as an option for punishing a president and would amount to an ineffective slap on the wrist for a president who has committed what they consider serious crimes.
Hyde called censure "similar to yelling at a teen-ager."
"It purges you of some emotion," he said, "but I'm not sure what it accomplishes."
Late yesterday, Hyde sent Livingston a letter stating: "It is my view that a resolution or amendment proposing censure of the President in lieu of impeachment violates the rules of the House, threatens the separation of powers, and fails to meet constitutional muster."
Gingrich concurred with this in a letter released late yesterday.
"I plan to follow your advice with respect to this matter," he wrote Hyde.
Gingrich and Livingston said censure is unconstitutional and against House rules.
"Censure of the president would violate the careful balance of separation of powers," wrote Livingston.
Before voting on the fourth article of impeachment, Republicans added a charge to bolster their impeachment drive.
They stripped some of the most controversial accusations from their original version, then passed the article accusing Clinton of abusing his office by lying and misleading Congress with his answers to 81 questions posed last month by the committee.
The final article of impeachment is widely considered the least likely to pass the full House. The original abuse-of-power resolution accused Clinton of "frivolously and corruptly" invoking executive privilege to hide top aides from Starr's questioning, and of lying to the American public and top aides about his relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern.
But senior committee Republican George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania expressed strong concern that impeaching the president for asserting privileges that even the Supreme Court found to have some merit would infringe too strongly on the powers of the presidency.
Others argued that impeaching the president for lying to the American people would set a dangerous precedent, considering that Clinton was not under oath and presidential falsehoods are not exactly unheard of.
By dropping those charges, Republicans said they had demonstrated they are approaching the impeachment proceedings soberly and thoughtfully.
"It shows we are willing to meet the president halfway," declared senior committee Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin. Committee Democrats were not impressed.
Senior committee Democrat Howard L. Berman of California called the maneuver "an orchestrated dance to create an illusion of credibility."
With three articles of impeachment already approved, the committee spent much of its rare Saturday session arguing about the meaning of impeachment.
Hyde and other Republicans stressed that a vote for impeachment is merely a vote to send the charges to the Senate for trial. It was not a vote to remove the president from office, they said.
"The House accuses, and the Senate judges," Hyde said.
Democrats charged that Republicans were intentionally playing down the magnitude of an impeachment vote to ease the minds of moderate Republicans weighing their decisions.
Instead, they emphasized the language that concludes each article approved by the committee: "William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office."
"This does, sometimes to some people, begin to take on the appearance of a coup. It's staggering. It's frightening," Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan declared, infuriating Republicans.
But only when pushed did a handful of committee members agree that their aim was to end the Clinton presidency.
"We cannot expect to restore the office of the presidency by leaving a perjurious president in office," Republican Steve Buyer of Indiana said bluntly.
Said Rep. Bill McCollum, one of the committee's steadiest impeachment advocates: "If we can get him convicted and removed from office, then, by golly, we should do it.
"At the very least, he deserves impeachment, impeachment that will go down in history as saying, this was a president that was impeached for these awful offenses."
Four articles of impeachment
Article 1: Approved 21-16. Alleges President Clinton "willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony" before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury on Aug. 17.
Article II: Approved 20-17. Alleges Clinton "willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony" in sworn, written answers on Dec. 23, 1997, and during his videotaped testimony on Jan. 17, 1998, in the sexual misconduct lawsuit filed by Paula Corbin Jones.
Article III: Approved 21-16. Alleges Clinton "prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice and has to that end engaged personally, and through his subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or scheme designed to delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence and testimony" related to the Jones case. The article lists seven alleged acts of obstruction of justice.
Article IV: Approved 21-16. Alleges that Clinton "engaged in conduct that resulted in misuse and abuse of his high office." It says he "willfully made perjurious, false and misleading sworn statements" in his written responses to some of the 81 questions posed by the Judiciary Committee.
-- Associated Press
Pub Date: 12/13/98