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The mood on Capitol Hill starts ugly, gets worse After Livingston's speech and Democratic walkout, vote seems anticlimactic


WASHINGTON -- In this climate, even the Pledge of Allegiance can prompt partisan catcalls.

Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, a New York Republican, rose yesterday to deliver the pledge, yesterday's first order of business for the House of Representatives. After he reached "with liberty and justice for all," spectators in the gallery who were against impeachment began shouting, "ALL." Their point: justice was being delivered only to the Republicans, since censure was not an option.

The calls eventually hushed, but it took two slams of the gavel to stop them.

The day only got uglier.

A few minutes later, Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston took to the floor. Before he reached the stunning moment when he announced his resignation, he told the House that President Clinton should resign. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and staunch impeachment foe on the Judiciary Committee, began shouting "No!"

She shouted "no" nearly a dozen times, each time pounding the desk where some Judiciary Committee members were encamped. Several other Democrats joined in the chant. Then, she began to shout, "You resign!" -- a phrase she yelled several times as she stared straight at Livingston.

Near her, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a veteran of 34 years in the House, patted his hands down as if to hush the crowd. When the quiet finally came, Livingston finished his thought: "I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker but I cannot do that job."

Soon, he left the floor to the applause of Republicans. Many Democrats cheered for him as well. Among those offering him a standing ovation: Rep. Maxine Waters.

It was hard to balance such events with the inevitable impeachment vote.

Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, was hypothesizing just off the House floor about the events that led to Livingston's decision when his pager went off.

He froze in mid-sound bite.

"We don't have any votes, do we?" he asked, frantically looking for the beeper that could be calling him to the floor for the historic moment.

Not to worry -- the most important vote many members said they would cast in their careers was more than an hour off. Wamp returned to topic A.

"We need someone to reach out to the other side before this House melts down," he said of a new speaker. "This is a war."

Dozens of Democrats lobbed their grenades in that war when the impeachment vote finally came. Although they eventually voted "no," first they stalked out of the House chamber en masse and stood in solidarity in the cold East Front of the Capitol.

"Go back and do your job!" shouted a spectator. "Democrat hero!" yelled another. John Hobine, a protester from Virginia, held his 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, and screamed, "Clinton is no example for my daughter."

Maggie leaned into her father's shoulder as the crowd heckled him back. "I want Bubbles," she said, calling for her pet animal as her father whisked her away.

Inside the chamber, the long-awaited impeachment occurred at 1: 19 p.m. That was the instant the Republicans garnered the decisive 218th vote to approve the first article.

The slate-gray panels on the walls were illuminated with members' names and their votes: Red for "no" and Green for "yes."

"The president is impeached," a spectator mumbled. "You were there."

The moment arrived in an anticlimactic blur. Moments before, the Democrats had emerged and walked down the Capitol steps. The crowd applauded. A few shouted "God Bless America!" and "God Bless the Democrats!" Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and colleagues moved before the cameras to say they were deeply offended and would not give up the fight. Then they disappeared back inside to vote and it was done.

"That was it?" one woman muttered.

But for Patty Simmons, a Virginia Democrat, it was a moment well worth the wait. She came for her father, a retired history and civics teacher who died last spring.

"This is historic," she said, "and he would be absolutely disgusted if I hadn't come."

At 1: 24 p.m. an elderly man pedaled a rusty bike across Independence Avenue at First Street, the radio in his red, white and blue wicker basket emitting this brief snippet of news to pedestrians at the crosswalk as he passed:

"The Congress of the United States has just voted to impeach the president."

@4 The man pedaled on, radio blaring, and was gone.

Outside the Capitol, all that was missing was Madame Defarge.

A woman in a clown suit with a hat of balloons passed by, rolling a wheeled trunk. A man on stilts covered with long striped pants followed close behind.

About three dozen demonstrators of largely anti-impeachment sentiment protested with signs and chants, but bystanders seemed more entertained than moved.

Jan Sommer, in town for a wedding, was one of the minority for impeachment in the gathering. When a small group of Republican lawmakers appeared at the top of the steps, she stood in the middle of the crowd and spoke out. Shouted, actually.

"Thank you!" Sommer, a 40-year-old Californian, called up to them.

Around her, others argued that the Constitution was being upended. But she stood firm.

"I'm thrilled they are willing to risk political suicide to do the right thing," she said. "He broke the law."

Around town, life tried to carry on as usual.

Sales were down a little at Avdal Dosky's sidewalk stand on Pennsylvania Avenue. Not many people wanted their pictures taken next to the life-size cardboard figures of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Dosky owns a Gore figure, too, but it has been out of commission since his toddler daughter toppled it and broke off the head, he said.

"But I think I'm going to have to fix him," he said, on hearing about the impeachment vote. "I might even have to order a new Gore by spring."

In the halls of Congress, a darker mood prevailed amid the ritual of impeachment.

On the House floor, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority whip and to many the true, behind-the-scenes leader of House Republicans, stood in the aisle and signed papers allowing the impeachment documents to be transferred to the Senate.

At 2: 57 p.m., a quiet delegation of congressmen moved past a rotunda full of imposing statues as Republican Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, delivered the articles of impeachment in a black, leather-bound folder to the secretary of the Senate.

Capitol police flanked them, the House sergeant-at-arms led them, and only members of the committee who voted for impeachment -- all its Republicans -- joined the delegation.

It was a silent procession. All that could be heard was the click of shoes down the long marble halls, and the sober stillness of a House that had just made history.

As he does almost every afternoon, Harris Gilbert, 46, sat on bench in Lafayette Park directly facing the White House. It is not the bench he sleeps on, which is around the corner in McPherson Square. But it is the one where he usually spends three hours a day.

And that's where he was yesterday when Bill Clinton was impeached.

Gilbert watched with mild interest as a crowd of more than 100 anti-war demonstrators suddenly appeared from around the corner and moved in front of the White House to protest the bombing of Iraq. "Hey, Bill, what do you say? How many kids did you kill today?" they chanted.

It seemed a typical day, Gilbert said, except for the impeachment, which he thought gave him a little something in common with the president.

With Clinton's future in the White House a bit more uncertain, Gilbert said, "He might just wind up out here with me."

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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