WASHINGTON -- On the eve of a sexually charged impeachment debate, House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston stunned Capitol Hill last night with an announcement that he, too, has had sexual affairs that nearly destroyed his marriage.
Livingston's disclosure -- dropped amid intense partisan tensions -- is likely to be exploited today, when the House takes up debate on whether to impeach President Clinton for his efforts to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"Because of the tremendous trust and responsibility my colleagues have placed in me, and because of forces outside this institution seeking to influence the upcoming events . . . I have decided to inform my colleagues and my constituents that during my 33-year marriage to my wife, Bonnie, I have on occasion strayed from my marriage, and doing so nearly cost me my marriage and my family," Livingston said in a statement.
But the Republican congressman sought to distinguish his misdeeds from the articles of impeachment against Clinton, who is accused of lying under oath about an affair with Lewinsky, a former White House intern. "I want to assure everyone that these indiscretions were not employees on my staff, and I have never been asked to testify under oath about them," Livingston said.
Livingston considered offering to drop his candidacy for speaker when the next Congress convenes in January, a Republican aide said. But House Republicans said that when they greeted his confession with a standing ovation, in a closed-door session yesterday, Livingston decided to proceed both with his own expected election as speaker and his first major test of leadership -- the impeachment of the president.
A half-dozen Republicans stood up at the meeting to praise Livingston and affirm their support for his leadership. The supporters included Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the third-ranking House Republican, who said, "Nobody is perfect in this room," according to Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County.
Democrats quickly pounced, eager to bolster their arguments that lying or concealing a sexual affair does not warrant the second presidential impeachment in history.
"Clearly, this is an announcement of significant proportions," said Rep. William Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democrat, who noted the comparisons with Clinton. "They both sought atonement, and sought forgiveness from their families."
But Republicans were defiant, saying Livingston's candor contrasted with the president's obfuscations. Indeed, the latest turn in the twisted path toward impeachment appeared to harden partisan lines and embolden a Republican-led House that appears ready to impeach.
"He's genuinely been honest with us," Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio said of Livingston. "Pennsylvania Avenue can't tell the truth if it had a gun to its head."
Some Republicans also said they suspected the White House -- either indirectly or overtly -- had unearthed the evidence of Livingston's affairs. The story first broke on the Web site of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. Livingston had begun notifying fellow Republicans because he feared his infidelity would emerge in another publication that had been investigating the matter, Roll Call said.
Republicans "are shocked and disgusted by the underhanded tactics that we've been seeing now for weeks and months by people who prefer to go through gutters and trash cans rather than address the issues before us," said Rep. James E. Rogan, a Judiciary Committee Republican.
Rep. John Linder, a Georgia Republican, was even more direct: "This is what the White House calls scorched-earth policy."
Even Livingston appeared to be pointing his finger, either at the White House or the president's allies, when he said in his statement: "To those who are investigating me or others of my colleagues, please understand that I will not be intimidated by these efforts. These efforts will NOT deter me from performing my sworn duty under the Constitution."
Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, flatly denied that the White House had any connection to the Livingston story and declined to comment further.
But the revelation could clearly cloud the impeachment debate.
Rep. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, conceded, "The bottom line is that [Livingston] still lied, he lied in the oath to his wife. It makes for a horribly confused jury setting. It's awful for everybody concerned."
Some Republicans were thrown on the defensive, offering arguments that sounded similar to Democratic defenses of Clinton.
"Do people mislead people? Do people lie? Do people have affairs?" mused Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, who supports impeaching the president. "We're all weak human beings who are subject to frailty. All this weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth should run its course. There's a limit.
"I hear Democrats talking about moral authority and Republicans talk about moral authority," he added. "We all wave this stick too much, probably."
Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Judiciary Committee Republican, said the Livingston case "reminds us of human frailty."
Ney said the matter is "between him and his wife and the people who elect him."
The revelations about Livingston, 55, not only come at a critical moment in the impeachment process. They also follow a year of an escalating war of public disclosures about the private peccadilloes of politicians.
The lanky Louisianan had taken the House floor yesterday to defend his first leadership decision -- to delay for just one day the debate and vote on articles of impeachment against Clinton, deference to the military strikes against Iraq still under way.
Livingston acknowledged his eagerness to quickly dispatch the Clinton sex-and-lies scandal from the business of the House, before his term as speaker formally begins next year.
The revelations in January about the Lewinsky affair that form the basis of the impeachment charges later triggered embarrassing disclosures about some of Clinton's political opponents.
The most recent target was Henry J. Hyde, the Judiciary Committee chairman, who was in charge of the House impeachment inquiry. In September, he acknowledged press reports of a five-year affair with a married woman conducted three decades ago.
Earlier, two other House Republicans also acknowledged to inquiring news organizations that they had committed sexual indiscretions.
Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican and committee chairman who has spent much of this year investigating fund raising by the Clinton campaign, confirmed that he had fathered a child in an extramarital affair.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, who had called for Clinton's resignation, confessed to a long-term romance with a married man more than 10 years ago -- before she came to Congress.
Pub Date: 12/18/98