Historic votes for impeachment Judiciary Committee reaches decision along party lines

Issue forwarded to House

Showdown next week

outcome of debate is too close to call

December 12, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a momentous move that capped a tumultuous, nearly yearlong scandal, the House Judiciary Committee voted yesterday to recommend that President Clinton be removed from office, approving articles of presidential impeachment for only the third time in history.

Without a single Democratic vote, the Republican-led committee approved the first three of four articles of impeachment. Those accuse Clinton of lying before a federal grand jury about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, lying in the Paula Corbin Jones case and obstruction of justice.

The remaining article -- charging Clinton with abuse of power -- is to be decided by the committee today, to be followed by a Democratic-proposed censure resolution that is expected to fail.

The solemn vote on the first article, charging that Clinton "willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony" to a federal grand jury, came just minutes after a stone-faced Clinton stepped before cameras in the White House Rose Garden and apologized to the nation again for "all I have done wrong in words and deeds."

The historic Judiciary Committee votes took place in the same room where President Richard M. Nixon's fate was debated a quarter-century ago, and it ensured that articles of impeachment would be sent to the full House for a showdown on the floor scheduled for Thursday.

If impeachment is approved in the House -- which appears evenly split, with about two dozen Republicans undecided -- the matter would move to the Senate for only the second presidential impeachment trial.

The Senate needs a two-thirds majority to remove a president from office. For now, that is considered highly unlikely because Republicans hold a majority of only 55-45.

After several hours of debate -- marked by fierce partisan rancor -- the committee approved the first impeachment article, with little fanfare or drama, in a 21-16 party-line vote.

"Article One is approved," the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, announced.

"The fact that this vote was done strictly along party lines speaks for itself," Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said after the vote.

Democrats on the committee expressed dismay at the magnitude of punishment being drafted against the president, in defiance of public opinion, for misdeeds that stem from a sexual affair.

"I can't believe we are going to do this when 65 to 70 percent of Americans are begging us not to do this," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, referring to polls that have consistently shown about two-thirds of the public opposed to impeachment.

Other Democrats predicted that Americans would "wake up" Monday morning appalled at the committee's work and wondering how it had been allowed to happen.

But committee Republicans disagreed, saying that the public has been following the proceedings closely and will hardly be shocked by the outcome. "I think you almost have to have been living in a cave to not realize something is happening here," said Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio.

Two hours later, at 6: 23 p.m., the committee passed the second article, alleging that Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky in his sworn deposition in the Jones sexual-misconduct suit.

A single Republican, Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, voted with the Democrats in opposing that perjury article.

Rep. Thomas M. Barrett of Wisconsin, echoing a theme among his fellow Democratic committee members, said he couldn't "sit here with a straight face" and say he believed that Clinton told the truth when he testified that he didn't recall being alone with Lewinsky. But Barrett said, "Impeachment may not be the sanction that is necessary here."

Republicans argued that the transgression was, indeed, grave.

"What's the message we send to every victim of sexual harassment in the workplace?" asked Rep. James E. Rogan of California. "You better keep your mouth shut, because if you don't have the courage to come forward, the defendant can come in and lie with impunity?"

At the end of a 12-hour day, the committee cast another party-line 21-16 vote for the third article, which alleges that Clinton obstructed justice and tried to thwart independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation by concealing evidence, tampering with witnesses, seeking a job for Lewinsky in exchange for her silence and making false statements to his staff.

"This article demonstrates the web and deceit and cover-up constructed by the president to conceal his lies in the Paula Jones case," said Chabot.

But Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler said the obstruction of justice charge -- as well as the abuse of power count -- didn't pass the "giggle test."

"They're laughable as well as outrageous," the New York lawmaker said.

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