WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives stepped back last night from a landmark vote on the impeachment of President Clinton, after GOP leaders decided to postpone the impeachment debate while the United States wages military airstrikes against Iraq.
But in an ominous sign of political disintegration, Republicans openly questioned the motives of their commander-in-chief, as bombs were falling on Baghdad.
Congressional Republicans angrily accused President Clinton of intentionally staging military action to postpone an impeachment vote originally scheduled for today that is almost certain to go against him.
And they vowed to convene the impeachment debate in a matter of days, perhaps even tomorrow.
"We are reserving our right to move forward with the other action," House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston declared.
Democrats -- and some prominent Republicans -- pleaded with their colleagues to rally behind the president in a conflict with Saddam Hussein that most Republicans have been advocating for months.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed his belief last night that the strikes would have a dramatic effect on Iraq's infrastructure, reassuring fellow Republicans that "the operation was carefully planned over a long period of time."
But the skeptical response of GOP leaders was unprecedented in its violation of the tradition that domestic political disputes to stop at water's edge.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declared, "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time."
House Republican Leader Dick Armey was even more direct, saying the president was rapidly "losing his ability to lead":
"The suspicions some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment," Armey said in a statement.
"After months of lies, the president has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons."
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter J. Goss cautioned that "now is not the time for partisan recriminations and accusations," but he pointedly added that "when the dust settles" he plans to conduct a "thorough investigation."
Democratic leaders indignantly dismissed the questioning of the president's timing, saying Republicans would have castigated Clinton if he had not attacked.
"With yesterday's report to the United Nations confirming that inspectors are no longer able to perform their essential functions, the international community has no effective ability to ensure that Saddam Hussein cannot threaten his neighbors or endanger U.S. interests and personnel in the region," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt in a joint statement.
"Confronted with these circumstances, we believe that the president has made the correct decision to undertake military action against Iraq at this time," they said. "Any delay would have given Saddam Hussein time to reconstitute his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."
Said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat: "Reasonable people, those who have been following the ups and downs of this crisis, cannot question the legitimacy of this moment."
The House will gather in special session this morning to pass a resolution supporting the troops engaged in the Middle East. But Livingston made clear that the gesture had nothing to do with backing Clinton.
"We are united -- Republican and Democrat -- as American citizens in the belief that Saddam Hussein must be contained," an agitated Livingston said.
Republican Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, threw his support behind the airstrikes, as did Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.
Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and impeachment supporter, said of Clinton: "He has our full support as long as he's president to take any action he deems necessary."
But the spectacle of congressional leaders questioning the military actions of an embattled chief executive was chilling. A senior House defense aide said there was "deep skepticism on all sides," and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said the cynicism was justified.
The president's entire defense and foreign policy team, including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met last night in a closed meeting on the House floor to soothe Republican doubts.
It was a bizarre turn in the GOP's drive to impeach the 42nd president of the United States.
The air attacks came only after Clinton's fate appeared sealed. Nearly every remaining undecided Republican announced support yesterday for the president's impeachment, including some members the White House had most counted on, including Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa, Brian P. Bilbray of California, and Sherwood Boehlert of New York.
In a crowning blow, Rep. John Edward Porter of Illinois, one of only a handful of GOP impeachment opponents, switched sides, announcing, "If there are no consequences for the president's conduct, our commitment to truth and to the rule of law is undermined, and the beacon of hope that the United States holds out for oppressed people everywhere is dimmed."
On Tuesday, New York Rep. Jack Quinn, an early GOP opponent of impeachment, switched sides. Another opponent, Rep. Mark E. Souder, was lobbied by two fellow Indianians from the House Judiciary Committee, Steve Buyer and Ed Pease. He now says he is undecided.
That could leave Clinton with perhaps two Republican votes when the ballots are cast: New Yorkers Amo Houghton and Peter T. King. Maryland's Constance A. Morella may also vote with the president, but she has not yet announced her position.
"It's kind of lonely out there," Houghton quipped last night.
Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays has said he is undecided but still leaning against impeachment. Shays had planned to meet the president yesterday, but their session was postponed as Clinton prepared for the attack on Iraq.
Other previously undecided Republicans announcing their support for impeachment yesterday included Reps. Bob Ney and Deborah Pryce of Ohio, W. J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, Kenny Hulshof of Missouri, Mike Pappas of New Jersey, and Bill Redmond of New Mexico.
Drawing an analogy to President Richard M. Nixon's paranoia, Boehlert said Clinton had become convinced that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the attorneys representing Paula Corbin Jones were bent on his distruction.
"Blinded by his contempt for the people who he thought were out to get him, the president forgot his larger obligations to his office, to the Constitution and the American people," Boehlert said. "He let his personal feelings interfere with fulfilling his constitutional obligations."
There are still a handful of Republicans who have yet to declare their positions on impeachment, but it appeared yesterday to be mathematically impossible for Clinton to stave off the ignominy TC of only the second presidential impeachment in history.
Clinton could take solace that his own party has remained stalwartly behind him. Only three of the House's 206 Democrats have announced their support for impeachment. Yesterday, some of the most conservative Democrats in the House publicly stated their opposition to impeachment.
"I believe the president's actions were reprehensible, morally repugnant and have brought shame upon the highest office in our nation," said Rep. Chris John, a conservative Louisiana Democrat. "However, after much thought and months of careful deliberation, I have concluded that the constitutional threshold of 'treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors' that our framers enumerated has not been reached."
Impeachment proceedings have torn and tormented the House. California Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey said yesterday that her "heart is aching because of the division happening in the House of Representatives, because we cannot move forward on the issues that really matter, and because of the shame and waste of this impeachment process."
The U.S. air attacks on Iraq seemed only to widen the chasm separating the parties. The most ardent impeachment proponents actively encouraged GOP leaders to press forward, saying the attacks should have no impact on their efforts to oust the president.
Florida Rep. Bill McCollum, a senior Judiciary Committee Republican, said the delay would only encourage Hussein's defiance.
"To postpone this is to give satisfaction to Saddam. It's like yielding to terrorists," he fumed. "Every time we yield to him in any way, he gets some satisfaction."
Maryland GOP Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest said, "I feel strongly, now more than ever, that this president should be impeached.
Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican, asked, "Isn't it a sad commentary that we are asking ourselves the question" of Clinton's motives, calling the day's disbelief "Exhibit A on how the president's credibility is seriously eroded."
But Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde counseled caution, saying, "There are those who think it would be improper to proceed while bombing is actually going on and where lives are at risk."
He would not say when the impeachment debate should begin.
"It depends on the situation. It depends on the success of the bombing, how long it's going to take, whether some people think it was a cynical ploy to divert the impeachment. All these things would be taken into consideration before a judgment is made," Hyde said yesterday.
He added, "I don't think it's a cynical ploy."
Pub Date: 12/17/98