Impeachment vote will be political decision

December 11, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The testimony in the Clinton impeachment inquiry of constitutional scholars, historians, federal prosecutors and Nixon impeachment committee members has served to elevate the deliberations with their authoritative legal points on key issues involved.

At the same time, that testimony has lent an air of unreality for the simple reason that the impeachment process, which goes forward in Congress and not in the courts, is a political exercise whose outcome will be determined by politicians, not scholars and historians. And politicians seldom are guided by fine legal points on matters of great political sensitivity.

For all the witnesses' demeanor of political detachment, it must be remembered that all before the House Judiciary Committee this week were called on behalf of the White House in a clear effort to make the case that whatever President Clinton did, it does not rise to the level of impeachable offenses under the Constitution.

This is not to say that the course taken by the White House has not been constructive. After months of bitter wrangling over whether independent counsel Kenneth Starr was a fair and diligent fact-finder or an overzealous witch hunter after Mr. Clinton's political skin, the testimony focused the debate on such important matters as what constitutes prosecutable perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Witnesses raised critical questions about whether the allegations against President Clinton amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, whether prosecutors normally seek indictment and conviction on perjury charges, and whether they should proceed with this case when they have strong reason to believe the Senate will not convict.

Several witnesses made the point that in other cases, prosecutors before going to trial are usually guided by a cold assessment about their chances of winning a conviction from a jury. In this case, the wide assumption is that the Senate, with 45 Democrats and 34 votes needed to block conviction, will never vote to remove Mr. Clinton from office.

This argument did not cut much ice with committee Republicans, who noted that the House under the Constitution has its own responsibility to evaluate allegations of impeachable offenses and act, independent of the Senate.

The House Judiciary Committee was even warned by one witness, Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman, that impeachment articles voted by the lame-duck House this month would be wiped out by the seating of the next Congress next month, when the addition of five new Democrats could change the vote.

All this testimony gave the impeachment inquiry a veneer of intellectual seriousness that has bucked up against the reality that the question of impeaching Mr. Clinton will likely be determined more on the basis of political considerations, not legal fine points.

Unless some semblance of bipartisanship emerges of the sort that produced articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, the prospect in the end is for a straight party vote in the committee for one or more articles against Mr. Clinton.

Although the White House pointedly avoided a continuation of its earlier attacks on Mr. Starr, the testimony of the prosecutors and White House counsel Charles Ruff was a more tempered criticism of Mr. Starr's case, and of its acceptance whole-hog by the Republicans on the committee as the core of their accusations against Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Ruff and the others not only questioned whether any such allegations of perjury were strong enough to warrant prosecution, but also whether the case should have gone as far as it has without the committee doing its own fact-gathering.

But House Republicans bent on impeaching the president aren't going to be persuaded at this late date that Mr. Starr did a sloppy, biased and unprofessional job that should be further scrutinized. Nor is the scholarly defense of Mr. Clinton on grounds of legal arguments likely to mollify them either.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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