WASHINGTON - William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, was impeached today for perjury and obstruction of justice, setting in motion a constitutional crisis the nation has not seen this century.
Virtually along party lines, 228-206, the House voted at 1:24 p.m. to charge President Clinton with lying under oath when called to testify before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's federal grand jury.
The Republicans barely managed to push through a second impeachment article, charging that Clinton obstructed justice to hide his affair with Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. The vote was 221-212, with 12 Republicans voting against the third article of impeachment.
As the voting began, Democrats streamed out of the House chamber in protest, only to return hurriedly minutes later to cast their votes in dissent.
When the first impeachment article reached the critical 218 votes needed for passage, a muffled, perhaps rueful cheer rose from the House floor, with scattered clapping in the otherwise silent public galleries.
On a parliamentary maneuver, the House also beat back a Democratic effort to introduce a resolution censuring Clinton instead of impeaching him. The vote to declare the censure resolution irrelevant to the proceedings passed 230 to 204, with four Democrats joining the GOP majority, and two Republicans joining the Democrats.
Shortly after, the House narrowly defeated the second article of impeachment, 229-205, which accused Clinton of perjury in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit. Twenty-seven Republicans joined the Democrats and the House's single independent to defeat it.
The House also decisively defeated the fourth and final article of impeachment, charging that Clinton abused the power of his office by lying to Congress.
House Republicans stained Clinton with only the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history and all but guaranteed a spectacle not seen since 1868 and the presidency Andrew Johnson: a trial on the floor of the Senate to decide whether he will be removed from office.
The vote appeared to ensure that what House Democratic Whip David Bonior called "this whole sorry episode" would stretch well into next year - with ever more weighty implications, for the nation's battered body politic and the balance of power between the presidency and the Congress.
And if the process were not strange enough, Rep. Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana stood up on the House floor to throw down the gantlet to President Clinton, challenging him to resign from office, and backing that challenge by resigning himself, not only from the speakership that he was to assume next year but also from the House of Representatives.
Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott has made it clear he believes the Senate must move forward with an impeachment trial, prosecuted by House Republicans and presided over daily by Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist.
And the 12 Judiciary Committee Republicans already chosen to pursue the case said they will prosecute it vigorously.
But before that trial is convened, perhaps next month, Clinton will come under withering pressure to leave office voluntarily.
House Republicans before today's vote repeatedly exhorted colleagues to vote for impeachment if they believed Clinton should stand trial, even if they do not believe he should be removed from office.
"All you have to believe is that there is clear and convincing evidence that one of the articles is true, and send it to the Senate for trial," proclaimed Judiciary Committee Republican Bill McCollum of Florida.
But as Democrats predicted, GOP leaders have already begun calling for Clinton to step down, and using Livingston's example as a hammer to drive their point home.
"There is not greater American, at least today, then Bob Livingston," said a tearful Tom DeLay, the House's third ranking Republican, "because he understood what this debate was about. It was about honor and decency and integrity and the truth."
Two Democrats, Reps. William O. Lipinski of Illinois and Louise Slaughter of New York, have publicly said the president should at least consider resignation.
But nearly all House Democrats emerged from an early morning meeting with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton steeled to resist.
"He must not resign. He cannot resign," declared House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.
Declared Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one of the president's early Democratic critics: "Wake up, America. Realize what's happening here. This is about the basic right of the people to choose their government."
The House's impeachment of a president for the first time in 130 years was 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.
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 impeaching Clinton for what they said was essentially 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."
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.
Pub Date: 12/19/98