WASHINGTON -- A bitterly divided House voted yesterday to convene an impeachment inquiry into allegations that President Clinton committed offenses serious enough to end his presidency, after an angry debate freighted with historic portent.
Just 31 Democrats -- with 50 expected -- joined all 227 voting Republicans to approve an open-ended Watergate-style inquiry, making Clinton only the third president in the nation's history to face such peril. The 258-176 vote came 24 years after a nearly unanimous House authorized impeachment proceedings that eventually forced President Richard M. Nixon from office in disgrace.
"I think this country and this president have to sober up today," warned Rep. Bob Barr, a fierce critic of Clinton on the Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to draft formal articles of impeachment. "I hope from this point forward, the president takes this with the gravity" it deserves, the Georgia Republican said.
After the vote, Clinton expressed hope that Congress would handle the impeachment proceedings fairly and expeditiously.
"I hope that we can now move forward with this process in a way that is fair, that is constitutional and that is timely," the president said. "The American people have been through a lot on this, and I think everyone deserves that."
The debate, one of the gravest in recent history, lasted more than three hours, during which House members sparred acrimoniously. Democrats accused Republicans of railroading the president and running roughshod over the Constitution for political gain in Nov. 3 elections.
For most Democrats, the president's offenses boiled down to an embarrassing affair with a former White House intern that he tried to hide, an offense they said fell far short of the historic standard for impeachment.
"The president betrayed his wife; he did not betray his country," declared Florida Rep. Robert Wexler, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. "God help this nation if we fail to recognize the difference."
Republicans, though somewhat more temperate, all but accused their adversaries of seeking to cover up Clinton's alleged wrongdoing, including perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
'Let history judge us'
"Closing our eyes to allegations of wrongdoing by voting 'no' or ++ trying to limit the time and scope of an inquiry constitutes a breach of our responsibilities as members of Congress," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House. "Let history judge us as having done our duty to uphold the rule of law."
But in the end, Democrats got what they wanted: a largely party-line vote that launches impeachment proceedings under a cloud of partisan division. The vote bolsters the contentions of the White House and congressional Democrats that no national consensus exists to pursue a course as perilous as impeachment.
"We didn't win," said California Rep. Maxine Waters, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. "But we did darn good."
Republicans said the day's votes proved that virtually every House member favored an impeachment inquiry of some kind.
Indeed, both parties conceded that the issue yesterday was not whether there would be impeachment proceedings but how they should be conducted. Democrats proposed an inquiry that would be limited in time and scope, and that would have required a hearing to first define impeachable offenses. It received the votes of all but 10 Democrats, failing 198-236, with just one Republican, Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, backing it.
Seeking common ground
But in the end, Republicans could only hope that the partisan rancor subsides as the weight of the impeachment inquiry forces the parties to cooperate.
"As we move toward the truth, we will find that consensus," pledged Virginia Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, a Judiciary Committee Republican.
Behind closed doors, Judiciary Committee members and staff have gingerly begun to seek common ground. The sides will try (( to agree on the facts by looking at the evidence for 15 potentially impeachable offenses identified by the Republicans' chief investigator, David Schippers.
Once the factual disputes are isolated, staff attorneys will draft lists of witnesses needed to sort out the differences. The attorneys will decide which witnesses will be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, either to be deposed or to testify at hearings.
A Judiciary subcommittee will open hearings Oct. 22 with an examination of the historical standard for impeachable offenses. That hearing will fall short of Democrats' demands because members will not actually define the standard. Hearings on the ++ charges against Clinton will begin after Nov. 3 elections, said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.