WASHINGTON -- With the House of Representatives set to vote tomorrow on whether to convene the third presidential impeachment inquiry in history, Republican leaders have decided to block Democrats from proposing an alternative to the GOP plan for open-ended impeachment proceedings.
That decision will likely inflame the partisan rancor that has smoldered since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sent his impeachment report to Congress a month ago. It came as Democrats -- squeezed between party loyalty and anxiety over the election next month -- agonized over how to vote tomorrow. The House is expected to approve an impeachment inquiry, which requires a simple majority vote.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey ruled out yesterday any chance for Democrats to propose their own inquiry, which would be limited to President Clinton's conduct in the Monica Lewinsky matter and would be over by Thanksgiving. Indeed, the House may debate the impeachment inquiry for only one hour before one of the most momentous votes of members' careers.
"We have the right solution," Armey said of the open-ended impeachment resolution approved Monday by the Judiciary Committee along party lines. "It is just time to move forward."
The Republican decision could keep many Democrats from voting in favor of the impeachment resolution. This, in turn, could lead Democrats to denounce the resolution as partisan. Democratic aides on the committee expect about 50 Democrats to join a united Republican majority in authorizing an inquiry.
"To not allow our alternative to be debated would be the grossest form of partisanship," fumed Rep. Barney Frank, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. "What kind of signal would that be for fairness?"
Although they know they cannot defeat the Republican inquiry resolution, Democratic leaders have not given up efforts to ensure that the inquiry begins under a partisan cloud. A Democratic leadership aide confirmed yesterday that White House officials have furiously lobbied House members to oppose the resolution.
The vote on the impeachment inquiry will come the same day that House Republicans release an interim report on their long-running investigation into 1996 campaign finance improprieties. The report, drafted by Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, will immediately be shipped to the Judiciary Committee, possibly for inclusion in the panel's impeachment proceedings.
Burton cautioned that he was making no recommendations to Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It will be up to Hyde to decide whether to review the report.
Judiciary Committee aides signaled that they would approach Burton's report warily. David Schippers, the chief Republican investigator, said he was "not inclined to start rummaging through 300 more boxes" of evidence.
Paul McNulty, a committee spokesman, said the panel would be willing to take a look, but said members will consider only evidence that could be considered impeachable on its face.
Republican members of Burton's Government Reform and Oversight Committee said the report is unlikely to meet that standard. Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, said the panel had uncovered ample evidence of wrongdoing but that the president was not directly implicated.
The report says, for example, that Democrats still hold $1.8 million in possibly illegal campaign donations, an allegation dismissed by the Democratic National Committee as "completely inaccurate" and designed for the election season.
"Time and time again the DNC received information regarding the illegality or inappropriateness of contributions but failed to take the appropriate action of returning or disgorging them," the Republican report alleges.
For such allegations to be considered by the Judiciary Committee, Shays said, they would have to implicate Clinton. But the Republican report does not cite any specific wrongdoing by Clinton or suggest that he knew of specific fund-raising abuses.
"There are a lot of offenses," Shays said, "but whether we can tie them to the president is another question."
Democrats were delighted by the prospect of Burton's entering the fray, because of his reputation as an overzealous partisan. Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, the lead Democrat on Burton's committee, said nothing in the report "is worthy of the Judiciary Committee's time or attention."
Said Frank: "If you're a Republican being accused of partisanship, hearing that Dan Burton is sending you a report is like being on the Titanic and hearing that the Lusitania is coming to look for survivors."
But Democrats have plenty to worry about in the Lewinsky case. Schippers met with reporters yesterday to defend his blistering report listing 15 potentially impeachable offenses in the Lewinsky matter. Far from backing off from his allegations, Schippers escalated them.