Shaping the argument on impeachment Diverse lawyers would take lead in political fight

August 24, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The men who would take the lead in impeaching the president are a study in contrasts: an unassuming, aging attorney from Chicago with almost no political markings, paired with the consummate Washington ,X insider long affiliated with political dogfights.

About all that David P. Schippers and Abbe D. Lowell have in common is their voter registration cards, both marked "Democrat."

Different as they are, the two lawyers may soon be sharing the same grand stage, with unassuming Schippers serving as the Republican chief counsel and brash Lowell representing the Democrats. Their differing backgrounds speak volumes about the political fight that may be ahead.

In picking Schippers, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, went beyond the Washington Beltway to find a lawyer who could never be labeled a partisan attack dog.

Hyde's party has a solid majority on his committee, which would make the first decision about whether President Clinton should be charged with offenses that could result in his removal from office. But in the Senate, where a trial on those charges would be conducted, a guilty verdict would require a two-thirds vote. Any appearance of political motivation would only harden party lines.

In choosing Lowell, Democrats went for a fighter.

"When you're in the minority [party], you don't have the luxury of choice. You'd better pick someone who is good in the clinches, someone who can slug it out. Otherwise, you're fighting a losing battle," said Stan Brand, Lowell's law partner. "It was easy for Henry Hyde. He's got the votes."

Lowell's role is tricky because he works for members of the president's party. Some House Democrats may choose to be Clinton's defenders, others may not.

"Depending on how things go, it could certainly be a stretch of all my muscles," Lowell said.

Talk of impeachment is premature. But both political parties are preparing for a report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr on his four-year investigation of the president. They are positioning themselves in case Starr reports that he has found "substantial and credible information" that Clinton committed an offense that would fit the definition of "high crimes and misdemeanors" -- the Constitution's standard for an impeachable offense.

What constitutes an impeachable offense will probably be a political judgment, however, and it will be up to Schippers and Lowell to help shape that judgment. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson came within one Senate vote of being thrown from office for "certain intemperate, inflammatory and scandalous harangues."

President Nixon, in contrast, resigned before he could be impeached for enlisting federal law enforcement agents to help cover up a botched burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices. The House Judiciary Committee, however, voted not to bring charges against Nixon for evading a half-million dollars in taxes.

"It's a good political issue. But is it one that you impeach a president for?" asked then-Rep. Trent Lott of Mississippi, now the Senate majority leader.

Assessing Starr's report

As Lowell put it, he and Schippers will be the first legal eyes to assess Starr's report and determine whether it is worth further investigation, impeachment hearings or the trash heap. If the committee elects to open an impeachment inquiry, it will be Lowell and Schippers who will make the legal case for or against formal charges, run hearings from behind the scenes and, ultimately, counsel committee members how they should vote.

The political nature of any impeachment inquiry is showing itself in Washington in the behavior of House members and that of the parties' chosen counsels. A few Republicans -- and some Democrats -- have been outwardly hostile in the wake of $H Clinton's speech Monday night. But most have remained cautiously low-key.

"I have a very simple proposal," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "and that is to allow Judge Starr to finish his work and give his report to Congress, allow Chairman Henry Hyde to take that report to the Judiciary Committee and allow them do their jobs while we go on to work on the nation's business."

Schippers, 68, who once headed the Justice Department's organized crime and racketeering section in Chicago, has rarely commented on his pending role or on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

"Politics is not a driving force or primary filter through which Dave Schippers has conducted his public life," said Vincent Connelly, another former federal prosecutor in Chicago.

The same could not be said for Lowell, 46, a Bronx-bred former human rights attorney who specializes in defending politicians and businessmen. Lowell has been a fixture on television talk shows, spelling out exactly what he thinks of Starr's investigation.

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