WASHINGTON -- For all the solemn, and at times moving, words spoken in the House chamber yesterday, one surpassing reality hung in the air: President Clinton's impeachment is inevitable.
While the nation tries to grasp the staggering importance of an event that seemed impossible a month ago, Washington has moved on to the next question: Will the Clinton presidency survive?
The answer is not nearly so clear as it once appeared to be. In an atmosphere of deepening partisan division, Clinton is locked in mortal political combat with conservative Republicans in Congress. And everyone else, including the American public, is caught in between.
"A reckless president and a Republican Congress driven by a blind animus for him have brought us to this moment in history," retiring Rep. Vic Fazio said as the House debated Clinton's fate through another long day in this shell-shocked capital.
Added a fellow California Democrat, Rep. Zoe Lofgren: "The country is waiting for grown-ups to walk into this chamber and stop this madness."
That may not happen soon, if ever. Throughout the impeachment process, pressure from the conservative wing of the Republican Party has stifled all attempts to find any solution short of Clinton's removal from office. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, under similar pressure from his conservative colleagues, has said there will be no deal to head off a trial when impeachment goes to the Senate.
Unlike the House of Representatives, where a simple majority is enough to impeach, there must be a two-thirds vote of senators to remove the president from office. That should be enough to save Clinton's job, because at least 12 Democrats would have to vote for his ouster.
But no one knows whether the public will have the patience to let the Senate go through a lengthy process that ties up the government for months, preventing anything else from happening.
For the first time in the nearly yearlong scandal, time may now be Clinton's enemy.
Pressure to resign
Pressure on him to resign is certain to grow in the aftermath of today's vote. Yesterday, two Democratic representatives, Louise M. Slaughter of New York and William O. Lipinski of Illinois, joined the list of those who say the president should at least consider stepping down if he is impeached.
One of Clinton's most ardent defenders, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, warns that impeachment is "simply the beginning of the process." Republicans will use today's vote "as a club to drive the president from office," by contending that, because he has been impeached, he should spare the nation the trauma of a trial and resign.
Clinton has said repeatedly that he won't step down. Public opinion, which has sustained him through the many crises of his presidency, would have to desert him to force a resignation.
But the president's standing with the public may have begun to erode, recent polling suggests. Exactly what Clinton will, or can, do to reverse it isn't clear. His refusal, or inability, to give wavering Republican moderates a reason to resist impeachment was the final act that made impeachment inevitable.
Yesterday, underscoring the hopelessness of his situation in the House, Clinton hunkered down at the White House, out of public view. When Hillary Rodham Clinton made a rare statement in defense of her husband for TV cameras, she appeared to be responding to pleas from panicky White House aides, who feel she must use more of her considerable popularity to help save his skin.
As the House debate made clear, Clinton's refusal to admit that he lied under oath has shredded his credibility and heightened the mistrust between himself and congressional Republicans. Several Republicans again questioned the timing of Clinton's decision to launch a missile strike against Iraq on the eve of the scheduled impeachment vote.
Democrats claimed that the president's lies about a private sexual affair were not grounds for removing him from office, since they did not amount to an offense that threatened irreparable harm to the country.
But Rep. Tom Campbell, a soft-spoken Republican moderate from California, charged that Clinton's failure to tell the truth before a federal grand jury "incapacitates him from effectively serving as our president."
"I cannot trust him again," said Campbell, a former Stanford University law professor. "If it is in his interest not to tell the truth, he will not tell the truth."
On to the Senate
The deepening constitutional crisis has thus far produced few ripples outside Washington. But Democrats warned of far-reaching consequences when impeachment goes to the Senate.
"The president and the Congress will be diverted from their urgent national business," warned Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat. "There will probably be instability in the financial markets with adverse effects for the economy."
Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, responded by pointing to yesterday's record-high close of the NASDAQ stock market index.
By talking about how an impeachment trial would tie up Congress and paralyze the government for months, Democrats may be unwittingly playing directly into the Republican argument that Clinton should resign and end the crisis immediately.
Even before debate began, the passions unleashed by the decades-old, and worsening, cycle of partisan warfare in Washington bubbled to the surface. Democrats booed a reminder from the presiding officer, Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, that members could not refer to the personal conduct of fellow congressmen.
On everyone's mind was the disclosure Thursday night that Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston, a Louisiana Republican, had become the latest Washington figure to confess to marital infidelity.
Throughout the debate, Republicans repeatedly sought to silence Democratic accusations that Clinton's accusers are hypocrites.
"If we make every member of this House rumored to have been involved in an affair subject to a $40 million special prosecutor and then hold him accountable for any misstatement of fact, we may be faced with a number of empty seats in this chamber," said Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, to applause from fellow Democrats.
Criminalization of politics
For almost three dozen lame-duck congressmen, impeachment is the final -- and most important -- vote of their House careers. FTC Several used the occasion to deliver farewell words of warning about the corrosive spiral of partisanship in Washington, the criminalization of politics and the growing cynicism about government in America.
"We now are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, one of three House members who will become Clinton jurors when they move to the Senate next year.
"It has been used with reckless abandon by both parties, Democrats and Republicans," he added. "My fear is that when a Republican wins the White House, Democrats will demand payback."
Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, said if Republicans "dumb down impeachment, and make it easier for future Congresses to impeach presidents, we will forever weaken the institution of the presidency."
But Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, a Republican from Connecticut, argued that perjury meets the constitutional standard required for an impeachable crime.
"Our democracy is far more capable of surviving a transition in power," she said, "than surviving an erosion of fundamental obligations such as that to tell the truth under oath and to treat all citizens equally under the law."
Pub Date: 12/19/98