World

HIGH CRIMES?

The U.S. Congress weighs four impeachment charges

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 21 1998
World

HIGH CRIMES?

The U.S. Congress weighs four impeachment charges

ANDREW PHILLIPS December 21 1998

HIGH CRIMES?

World

The U.S. Congress weighs four impeachment charges

ANDREW PHILLIPS

William Jefferson Clinton has undermined the integrity of his office, has brought disrepute on the Presidency, has betrayed his trust as President, and has acted in a manner subversive of the rule of law and justice, to the manifest injury of the people of the United States.

Wherefore, William Jefferson Clinton, by such conduct, warrants impeachment and trial, and removal from office and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States.

And so finally last week, 10½ months after the scandal that still has no name spread its stain over the American political landscape, Bill Clinton faced the ultimate political penalty that can be visited upon a president. Four times, members of the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives voted to impeach him and remove him from office on charges that he committed perjury, obstructed justice and abused the powers of his office. The language was solemn, as befit the occasion—only the third time that the process of ousting an

American president has gone so far. This week, Clinton faces his gravest challenge ever as the House gathers to consider the committee’s recommendations. Even the President’s defenders concede that he faces the very real possibility of losing there and of being sent for a humiliating trial in the Senate.

How did it come to this? Only five weeks earlier, Clinton’s Democrats scored an upset victory over the Republicans in midterm elections. The message from voters seemed unmistakable: enough already with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The White House let down its guard, overlooking the fact that the Republicans’ defeat had plunged the party’s leadership into chaos. With Newt Gingrich pushed out as Speaker of the House and his successor, Robert Livingston, not yet in office, the hardline Republicans on the judiciary committee forged ahead with their plans to oust Clinton over the lying and obstruction he engaged in to cover up his liaison with Lewinsky.

With a leadership vacuum at the top, the Republicans’ uncompromising whip, Tom DeLay of Texas, stepped in to push the impeach-

ment drive forward—despite polls showing Americans opposed to it by a margin of two to one. Democrats say the public has been caught off guard. “Wake up, America!” thundered Robert Wexler, a Democratic congressman from Florida. “They are about to impeach our President.” There will be no escaping it this week. On Thursday, the full House is to convene to consider the articles approved by the judiciary committee. For five long days, the committee sat through impassioned arguments from both sides. They pored over the all-too-familiar saga of Clinton’s attempts to conceal his 18-month relationship with Lewinsky—but no minds were changed.

On three of the articles, all 21 Republicans voted for impeachment while all 16 Democrats opposed it. The first charges that Clinton perjured himself before a grand jury when he denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky and even denied being “alone” with her.

The third article alleges that Clinton obstructed justice, in part by encouraging Lewinsky to lie about their relationship and by trying to influence testimony by his secretary, Betty Currie. The fourth article charges Clinton with abusing his office by “making perjurious, false and misleading statements” to Congress. On the second article, alleging he perjured himself in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit, a sole Republican broke party ranks to side with the Democrats.

The partisan split was a foregone conclusion: the committee is polarized between right-wing Republicans and liberal Democrats. The real fight comes this week as the White House tries to head off an impeachment vote in the House.

Strategists on both sides say the battle is for the votes of some 20 to 30 so-called moderate Republicans, mainly from northeastern states such as New York and Pennsylvania, who might be persuaded to oppose impeachment. The math is straightforward: Republicans hold 228 seats in the House to the Democrats’ 206 (there is also one independent who normally votes with the Democrats) . As many as five conservative Democrats are expected to vote for impeachment. As a result, Clinton’s supporters must find 14 to 16 Republicans willing to vote with them to reach the bare majority of 218 votes to defeat all four articles of impeachment.

Even if the House approves just one article, Clinton will have been formally impeached, only the second president after Andrew Johnson in 1868 to suffer that fate. A trial would follow in the Senate, where Republicans hold 55 seats to the Democrats’ 45. A twothirds majority there is needed to convict the President and remove him from office. Given the party lineup there and the fact that the Senate is less partisan than the House, it is highly unlikely that Clinton would actually be found guilty and thrown out— a fact that some House Republicans cited as justification for their pro-impeachment votes. DeLay, the chief anti-Clinton activist, said impeachment “is like a grand jury that looks at the evidence, and the House decides whether the evidence warrants sending it to the Senate for trial.”

DeLay and other hardline Republicans, of course, wanted to

assure wavering party members that this week’s vote is less momentous than it really is. Impeachment in the full House would indelibly and forever mark Clinton’s presidency. Worse, it would prolong the scandal well into next year as the Senate took up the case in what could be a lengthy and sensational trial presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist. No wonder that the White House mounted a full-scale campaign to head off the worst—lobbying moderate Republicans and ensuring that every Democrat will be present for the key votes (one congressman, who is recovering from hip surgery, was to be flown back to Washington from California on a stretcher).

Clinton underlined the urgency of his situation on Friday by openly appealing to Congress to censure rather than impeach him. He stood at a podium in the Rose Garden and said he accepts the fact that his fate is in the hands of the people’s representatives: “Should they determine that my errors of words and deed require

their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that.”

At 4:15 p.m., he turned and walked back to his office, his head lowered, a Christmas tree visible just inside the door. At 4:24 p.m., the judiciary committee began voting on the first article of impeachment. Clinton conspicuously did not do what Republicans had said he must do to have a chance of averting impeachment—admit that he had lied. Instead, he clung to his previous formulation of saying he “misled” the public, the Congress and his family. The move seemed to backfire: several moderate Republicans immediately announced they were so disappointed that they would vote for impeachment after all.

Censure is the option pushed by Clinton’s camp to head off impeachment. It would allow Democrats and moderate Republicans to register their disapproval of the President without prolonging the scandal. Democrats on the judiciary committee last week circulated a draft “sense of the Congress” resolution that included these harsh words: ‘William Jefferson Clinton . . . through his actions has violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the office of President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him.”

Some Democrats suggest that a compromise solution might involve requiring Clinton to sign such a rebuke and perhaps also agree to a fine or loss of his presidential pension. But most top Republicans oppose the idea. If a censure contained no penalties, they say, it would be meaningless. If it did contain them, it would violate the constitutional separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. DeLay vowed not even to allow a vote on censure to reach the floor of the House this week, though Livingston, the Republicans’ Speaker-elect, left a glimmer of hope for compromise. There is also a harsher political calculation: if no censure is possible, moderate Republicans will be more likely to opt for impeachment.

On Saturday, as the committee approved the fourth article of impeachment, Clinton left for Israel to support the Middle East peace process. On Tuesday, he was to return to Washington—with two days left to save himself from the humiliation of impeachment. □