WASHINGTON -- William Jefferson Clinton was impeached yesterday on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, setting in motion a landmark Senate trial that will determine whether the 42nd president of the United States will be the first in history to be removed from office.
In an extraordinary day for the president and the Congress, the nation witnessed the resignation of House Speaker-to-be Robert Livingston in the wake of his own sexual revelations, the fourth wave of U.S.-led airstrikes over Iraq and the second presidential impeachment in history.
Not since Andrew Johnson's impeachment 130 years ago has a president faced such political peril.
By an even narrower margin, 221-212, the House approved a second article of impeachment, charging Clinton with obstruction of justice.
Two other articles of impeachment were defeated.
Afterward, the president was unbowed, declaring that he would not resign and that he would "continue to do the work of the American people," who, polls show, opposed impeachment by a wide margin.
"We must stop the politics of personal destruction," Clinton implored after the vote, flanked outside the White House by House Democrats, with the first lady by his side.
But Republican leaders were just as firm in their assertion that the president's actions deserved the harshest political retribution allowed in the Constitution -- and not the lesser punishment of censure that the president and his allies had urged.
"Today, we are defending the rule of law and letting freedom work," proclaimed House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas. "This vote is not about the character of a president. It is about the character of a nation."
What started three years ago as a tawdry presidential dalliance with a White House intern has ballooned into a crisis that is threatening to sweep up the Congress and the White House in waves of political acrimony and recriminations of sexual wrongdoing.
"This has been the most painful day I've ever served in the House of Representatives, not just because the president of the United States was impeached by only one political party, but because a good man has resigned because of indiscretions in his private life," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat. "We have to find a way to heal this country."
But in the wake of a historic political conflagration, Republicans expressed pride in having held the president to "the rule of law" that applies to all Americans. And they embraced the prospect of a trial in the Senate to determine whether the president should be removed from office.
"Democracy lives and lives on a higher plane than ever before," declared Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, one of 12 Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who have been chosen to prosecute the case in the Senate. "That's the key message today."
Another Republican "manager" for the Senate trial, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, declared: "We are prepared to take this case to the Senate and will conduct a vigorous trial. The verdict, I think, will be assured."
Approval of the first article of impeachment came at 1: 24 p.m. The House voted to charge Clinton with lying under oath Aug. 17 when he was called to testify before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's federal grand jury.
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.
Only five Democrats voted to impeach: Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Charles W. Stenholm and Ralph M. Hall of Texas, Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia and Paul McHale of Pennsylvania. The Democratic defectors were offset by five Republicans who voted against impeachment: Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, Christopher Shays of Connecticut, Amo Houghton and Peter T. King of New York, and Mark E. Souder of Indiana.
Once the 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 the other side of the world, at that moment, the skies over Baghdad flared with anti-aircraft fire as the fourth wave of U.S. air attacks on Iraq began.
The Republicans barely managed to approve another impeachment article, which charges that Clinton obstructed justice to hide his affair with Lewinsky. The vote was 221-212, with 12 Republicans voting against it.
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 to be irrelevant to the proceedings passed 230-204, with four Democrats joining the Republican majority, and two Republicans joining the Democrats.
The House narrowly defeated, 229-205, an article of impeachment that accused Clinton of perjury in the Paula Corbin 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. That vote was 285-148.
But in approving two of the four articles, House Republicans stained Clinton with only the second presidential impeachment in the nation's history.
The vote appeared to ensure that what House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior of Michigan called "this whole sorry episode" would stretch well into next year -- with ever-weightier implications for the nation and the balance of power between the presidency and the Congress.
Republican leaders said it was the price to be paid for defending "the rule of law," for expunging the example of lawlessness they say has been set by the nation's chief executive, and to eradicate what House Republican leader Armey called "a cancer spreading through the nation."
"The evidence is overwhelming; the question is elementary," said Rep. James E. Rogan of California, one of the House-appointed Republican impeachment prosecutors.
"The president was obliged under his sacred oath faithfully to execute our nation's laws. Yet he repeatedly perjured himself and obstructed justice, not for any noble purpose, but to crush a humble, lone woman's right to be afforded access to the courts.
"When they are old enough to appreciate today's solemnity," he said, "I want my young daughters to know that when the last roll was called, their father served in a House faithful to the guiding principle that no person is above the law, and he served with colleagues who counted it a privilege to risk political fortune in defense of the Constitution."
If the proceedings were not strange enough, Livingston stood up on the House floor to throw down the gauntlet to 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.
"To the president, I would say: 'Sir, you have done great damage to this nation over this past year. You have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign your post,' " Livingston declared from the House floor before the vote.
The White House will try to enlist former Senate Democratic leader George J. Mitchell to lead Clinton's Senate defense team and has even begun reaching out to the president's 1996 election rival, Bob Dole, to help defuse the crisis in the coming months.
But the president may no longer control his own destiny. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, accompanied by the other 11 House impeachment managers, ceremoniously delivered the two articles of impeachment to the Senate at 3 p.m.
And Senate Republican leader Trent Lott immediately set in motion the steps to convene a Senate impeachment trial, prosecuted by House Republicans and presided over daily by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
"Senators will be prepared to fulfill their constitutional obligations," Lott said in a written statement. "Each senator will take an oath to 'do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws; so help me God.' "
Already Senate Democrats are appealing to moderate Republicans and the White House to find some way to head off a lengthy trial, possibly with an agreement to censure Clinton and fine him.
"Over the past year, our country has suffered through difficult and divisive times," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "The Senate should now seek to bind those wounds, and we can do that by proceeding in a manner that is fair, dignified and completely nonpartisan."
Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, a Republican Judiciary Committee member who will help present the impeachment case to the Senate, did not foresee a long process.
"I believe it's important for a trial to be handled as expeditiously as possible. This is a relatively simple case," he said. "I would expect the trial would not take an extraordinarily long time -- more days or weeks than months."
Before a trial is convened or a deal is cut, 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, Republican leaders have begun calling for Clinton to step down and using Livingston's example to drive their point home.
"There is no greater American, at least today, than 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."
After the vote, the House Republicans who will prosecute the impeachment charges once again exhorted Clinton to resign.
Two Democrats, Reps. William O. Lipinski of Illinois and Louise M. 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 Hillary Rodham Clinton steeled to resist.
"He must not resign. He cannot resign," declared House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
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."
Pub Date: 12/20/98