WASHINGTON -- The vote of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives launching an open-ended inquiry into possible impeachment of President Clinton was no surprise.
The Republicans held a solid front for it, and 31 Democrats joined in, either in a pragmatic effort to protect their chances of re-election on Nov. 3 or because they thought there was no sense lying down in front of a steamroller.
Mr. Clinton's pre-vote advice to fellow Democrats to vote "on principle and conscience" was yet another bit of transparent dissembling. It came only after White House urgings that they oppose the Republican resolution to bolster the Democratic argument that the call for an inquiry without time limit was a purely partisan move to cast a wider net against the president.
Mr. Clinton's political geniuses should have realized from the start that there was little to gain in trying to keep all House Democrats in line.
In light of the damage that the president's behavior in the Monica Lewinsky scandal may have caused to some fellow Democrats seeking re-election, it was the height of self-interest to ask them to vote on some basis other than "principle and conscience."
Now Mr. Clinton and his political masterminds will have to look to these same fellow Democrats to try to turn back another steamroller toward the voting of actual articles of impeachment. From the debate on launching the inquiry, it is clear that many of them will pursue the Clinton defense on its most valid grounds -- that the actions of which the president is accused do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
But continuing to wage the defense on the grounds that the inquiry, as Democratic Rep. Gerald Nadler of New York extravagantly put it, is "a thinly veiled coup d'etat" by Clinton's political foes promises only to undercut the serious case that can be made that an extramarital affair is not the stuff for which a president should be impeached.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde insisted, to be sure, that the issue is not sex but matters that do rise to the level of impeachable offenses -- perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering allegedly committed by the nation's chief officer who has taken an oath to uphold the law. This is the issue that must be resolved in the end.
Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton's dogged attempt to avoid impeachment all costs was even more vividly demonstrated in the last week by the attempt to persuade 34 Democratic senators to sign a letter saying they would not vote to convict. That is the number required to defeat conviction in a Senate trial after House impeachment.
Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the Senate's leading constitutional authority, shot that one down succinctly. "I would suggest by way of friendly advice to the White House," he said, "don't tamper with this jury." The effort was abandoned, but probably not before ruffling more feathers among the self-same Democratic senators Mr. Clinton needs most right now.
Now that the impeachment process is under way in the House, the question is whether the White House will continue to wage its defense by attacking what Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California in the debate called "an open-ended witch hunt," or base it on whether truly "high crimes and misdemeanors" are involved here.
There is little reason to expect, based on the vote launching the inquiry and the already overheated political climate in the House, that the outcome will fail to yield some articles of impeachment.
Nor is it likely that any new facts uncovered in the House inquiry will avert that result, because the basic facts of what Mr. Clinton did are already known.
The country will be best served, therefore, by thoroughly airing during the House inquiry the issue of what constitutes impeachable offenses, as a prelude to an expected Senate trial. The failure to get 34 Senate Democrats to say in advance that they won't vote for conviction doesn't change the likelihood as of now that they will back the president anyway if it comes to that.
Regardless of the fate of Bill Clinton, however, the most important outcome of the whole mess may be a clarification of whether personal conduct or only actions in the conduct of official presidential duties constitute legitimate grounds for impeachment and removal from office.
Before that is done, though, the prospect is for more partisan wrangling, likely encouraged by the embattled White House.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 10/11/98