Impeachment inquiry urged By party-line vote, Judiciary panel backs formal House probe

15 Clinton offenses alleged

Republicans rebuff Democrats' attempts to limit scope, length

October 06, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Voting strictly along party lines, the House Judiciary Committee recommended last night the third presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history, after Republican investigators laid out 15 offenses that could ultimately end Bill Clinton's presidency.

The committee's momentous vote came after a grueling day of contentious debate over the gravity of Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and allegations that he lied under oath and tried to obstruct justice.

All 21 committee Republicans voted to convene a formal impeachment inquiry, and all 16 Democrats opposed it.

With the full House expected to ratify the committee's recommendation by Friday, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, still held out the possibility of bipartisan agreements once impeachment hearings begin -- possibly by mid-November.

"The 20th century has often been referred to as the American century," Hyde said. "It is imperative we be able to look back at this episode with dignity and pride, knowing we have performed our duty in the best interest of the country. In this difficult moment in our history lies the potential for our finest achievement -- proof that democracy works."

Republicans rebuffed Democrats' attempts to limit the scope and duration of impeachment proceedings, even as Hyde promised to try to wrap up the committee's work by January. On a party-line vote, the committee rejected a Democratic proposal that would have established a definition for an impeachable offense and then convened an inquiry only if the charges met that standard. Under this proposal, the inquiry would have ended by Thanksgiving.

The Republicans also rejected a Democratic proposal to limit any inquiry to the Lewinsky matter. As adopted yesterday, the impeachment resolution allows the panel to investigate any wrongdoing deemed potentially impeachable, from the alleged misuse of FBI files to the firing of White House travel office staff to fund-raising improprieties during the 1996 presidential campaign. Both parties would have broad subpoena powers.

Neither the party-line vote nor the vast philosophical divisions between Republicans and Democrats on the deeply partisan Judiciary Committee came as a surprise. The klieg lights and live television coverage only encouraged the panel's 37 members to stretch out the debate, which proceeded under the portraits of Hyde and Peter W. Rodino, the former New Jersey Democratic representative who chaired the Watergate impeachment hearings a quarter-century ago.

More startling was the blistering case laid out by the committee's chief Republican investigator, David Schippers, a former federal prosecutor and lifelong Democrat who was hired for his credentials as a respected and nonpolitical figure.

Schippers detailed "substantial and credible evidence of 15 separate events directly involving President William Jefferson Clinton that could -- could -- constitute felonies, which in turn may constitute grounds to proceed with an impeachment inquiry."

Worthy of impeachment

Schippers parried Democrats' assertions that all the charges stem from a sexual relationship and are therefore inconsequential. The alleged misconduct, Schippers said, "though arising initially out of sexual indiscretions, are completely distinct and involve allegations of an ongoing series of deliberate and direct assaults by Mr. Clinton upon the justice system of the United States."

And he asserted that the charges go to the heart of the nation's system of governance and are thus worthy of impeachment.

"If lying under oath is tolerated and, when exposed, is not visited with immediate and substantial adverse consequences, the integrity of this country's entire judicial process is fatally compromised and that process will inevitably collapse," Schippers said.

After a measured hourlong presentation, the investigator abruptly broke off to speak not as a lawyer but as a "father and grandfather." Expounding passionately on the rule of law, Schippers implored the committee:

"You're not being watched only by the individuals in this room, or by the vast television audience. Fifteen generations of Americans, our fellow Americans, many of whom repose in military cemeteries, are looking down and judging what you're doing today."

In response to Democratic requests, Hyde, an Illinois Republican, quickly struck Schippers' extraordinary personal statement from the official record.

Schippers' case for an inquiry was both wider and shallower than the potentially impeachable offenses laid out by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr a month ago. The investigator expanded to 15 Starr's list of 11 possible grounds for impeachment.

But Republican lawyers dropped two of Starr's most explosive charges involving abuse of presidential power -- charges that had carried the echo of Watergate. At the same time, they added new allegations that the president took part in a conspiracy to cover up his actions and to conceal Lewinsky's own "felonies."

A lesser charge

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