WASHINGTON -- After a debate yesterday shot through with raging partisanship, a tortured and torn House of Representatives will convene this morning to vote on the impeachment of the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.
The House's impeachment of a president for the first time in 130 years is all but a foregone conclusion. Democrats spent yesterday intermittently pleading for national forgiveness and hurling invective across the aisle at Republicans -- but largely declining to engage the other party in debate over the law.
Republicans have begun preparing for a landmark trial in the Senate that would decide whether Clinton should be convicted and removed from office.
But House members still summoned the will to argue well into last night over whether Clinton had lied under oath, obstructed justice and abused the power of his office to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- and whether those charges should merit the second presidential impeachment in history.
Republicans framed the debate as a principled one over "the rule of law," contending that everyone, including a president, is equal before the Constitution. Anything less than impeachment, they argued, would weaken the fabric that holds together a civil society.
Democrats just as passionately warned that impeachingClinton for what they said was essentially lying about sex would weaken the presidency and consign the national body politic to a downward spiral of recriminations and paybacks.
"My colleagues, we have been sent here to strengthen and defend the rule of law, not to weaken, not to attenuate it, not to disfigure it," exhorted Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who, as the first speaker, tried to set a lofty tone for the day's debate.
"This is not a question of perfection. It's a question of foundations. This isn't a matter of setting the bar too high. It's a matter of securing the basic structure of our freedom, which is the rule of law.
"No man or woman, no matter how highly placed, no matter how effective a communicator, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion or winner of votes, can be above the law in a democracy," he said.
Democrats countered that the president has pleaded for forgiveness and confessed to the "sin" of marital infidelity. It is time, they argued, to finally put the scandal behind the country and begin what they called a national healing.
"We need today to begin to practice a different kind of politics," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.
"We need to stand today as a unified body -- Republicans and Democrats, liberals, moderates, conservatives -- and reject raw, naked partisanship. We need to turn back -- the chance is still there -- before our nation and our democracy have become inalterably and permanently degraded and lowered."
But the two parties appeared to be speaking over each other's head. Republicans are virtually unanimous in their assertion that Clinton lied under oath, first in a deposition with Paula Corbin Jones' attorneys, then before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury. And a perjurer, Republicans said, must be impeached, placed on trial in the Senate and perhaps removed from office.
Democrats are just as united in their conviction that Clinton's obfuscations to hide a tawdry sexual affair did not meet the Constitution's impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Indeed, they contend, impeaching the president for the Lewinsky matter would dangerously lower the bar for impeachment and turn a grave constitutional responsibility into just another weapon in the political arsenal. Democrats argued strenuously for a lesser punishment, such as a harsh congressional censure, which the president has invited.
Only one Democrat, retiring Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, stood to voice his support for impeachment. "The most basic rights of the people will be preserved only when all elected officials at all levels tremble before the law," McHale declared.
A scant few Republicans -- Reps. Peter T. King and Amo Houghton of New York, followed late last night by Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County -- stood to speak in opposition to impeachment.
"For a president to be impeached, for an election to be undone, there must be a direct abuse of power," King said. "We are a nation consumed by investigations, by special counsels. We are a nation obsessed with scandal. As Republicans, we have failed to rise to our obligations."
Houghton looked beyond today's vote, to an aftermath that he warned damage the nation.
"Today, we deal with the law," Houghton said. "Tomorrow, we deal with people's lives. When all the argument is done, when the votes are taken, this is what we must work for: the humanity and the healing of this nation."
Pro-impeachment Republicans were also looking beyond today's vote, when at least one of four articles of impeachment is expected to pass. Rep. Ed Bryant of Tennessee, a Judiciary Committee Republican, said House Republicans have named 12 Republican lawyers to prosecute the case for Clinton's conviction and removal from office in a Senate trial next year.
They include three former federal prosecutors, Bryant and Reps. Bob Barr of Georgia and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas; two former military prosecutors, Reps. Steve Buyer of Indiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; a former municipal judge, Rep. James E. Rogan of California; and Hyde and Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, Bill McCollum of Florida, George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, Charles T. Canady of Florida and Steve Chabot of Ohio.
Those "floor managers" have begun talking about dividing up the prosecutorial tasks in preparation for the trial. And committee staff members rushed yesterday to draft a prosecution budget for approval by the House today.
"We have a responsibility now," Bryant said, "and our responsibility is to vigorously pursue the case."
Democrats last night planned their tactics for today. At 8: 15 this morning, they will meet with Hillary Rodham Clinton as part of a kind of "pep rally," a senior House leadership aide said.
Later this morning, after their expected loss on a procedural vote to allow consideration of censuring Clinton instead of impeaching him, House Democrats plan to stage a protest walkout. They will return later for the debate and vote on impeachment.
For a week, moderate Republicans -- who at one time were expected to oppose impeachment -- one by one have become impeachment supporters, leaving Democrats demoralized and resigned. Rep. George Miller of California, a liberal Democrat who is recovering from hip surgery, decided yesterday that a cross-country flight to vote against impeachment was not worth the pain and possible medical consequences.
Democratic attorneys on the Judiciary Committee handed out "talking points" yesterday, detailing facts to dispute the charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. But few Democrats bothered to read them, much less take up their arguments, Democratic committee aides said.
"We've made these arguments," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, who as the newly elected Democratic senator from New York will likely serve as a juror in the Senate next year. "And it doesn't seem to make a difference."
Instead, a parade of angry Democrats hurled barbed comments at Republicans, questioning why they would debate the impeachment of the commander in chief while troops were engaged in Iraq, charging them with a "constitutional coup d'etat," accusing them of hypocrisy for hiding their own sexual affairs and saying Republican leaders had strong-armed the impeachment vote by denying the House a vote on the alternative of censure.
While members never expressly referred to the recent revelations of the extramarital affairs of Hyde, Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston and Reps. Dan Burton and Helen Chenoweth, those disclosures hung over the debate.
"If we made every single member of the House rumored to have had an extramarital affair subjects of a $40 million investigation, we would be faced with a number of empty seats in this chamber," charged Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, recently elected the third-ranking Democratic House leader.
Fumed New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler: "You may have the vote, you may have the muscle, but you do not have the legitimacy of a national consensus. This partisan coup d'etat will go down in infamy."
Under a hail of recriminations, frustrated Republicans began detailing the evidence against the president. But by evening, they had largely stopped responding to each Democratic invective with a dry legal argument.
Still, they insisted that they had the facts and the Constitution on their side.
"The president turned the justice system upside-down for his personal gain. That's why we're here today," said Graham of South Carolina.
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L Plans for coverage of the House impeachment debate and vote:
ABC -- Session will be covered. Votes will be carried live.
CBS -- Session will be covered. Votes will be carried live. Buffalo Bills-New York Jets football game at 12: 30 p.m. will be carried; CBS is considering split-screen coverage.
NBC -- Session will be covered. Votes will be carried live.
PBS -- Gavel-to-gavel coverage.
CNN -- Extended coverage, including Iraq crisis as warranted.
Fox News Channel -- Extended coverage, including Iraq crisis as warranted.
MSNBC -- Extended coverage, including Iraq crisis as warranted
C-SPAN -- Gavel-to-gavel coverage.
Court TV -- Gavel-to-gavel coverage.
Pub Date: 12/19/98