Final article sent to House Democrats' proposal for less harsh censure voted down by panel

Focus on undecided members

GOP leaders rule out new debate this week on impeachment substitute

December 13, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- House Judiciary Committee Republicans beat back a strongly worded proposal to censure the president yesterday and rammed through one final article of impeachment, charging President Clinton with abusing the powers of his office by lying to Congress.

Defeat of the Democratic censure resolution last night officially ended the impeachment work of the deeply divided Judiciary Committee, which has struggled with the proceedings ever since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr forwarded his investigation report to Congress in September.

After the vote, Republican leaders said they would not allow the full House to vote on a censure resolution.

Earlier in the day and along party lines, the committee approved, 21-16, the Republicans' fourth article of impeachment, setting up a constitutional showdown Thursday, when the full House will consider whether to impeach a president for only the second time in U.S. history.

The battle now turns in earnest to the handful of undecided Republicans and Democrats who will determine whether the House will trigger a momentous Senate trial next year.

A two-thirds vote in the Senate would be required to oust Clinton from the White House -- a prospect that seems unlikely because the 45 Senate Democrats are apparently maintaining their ranks in opposition.

Only once before has such a trial been convened, and after three fractious months in 1868, the Senate fell one vote short of removing President Andrew Johnson from office.

This time, Democrats have warned, the trial would have to dwell on the prurient details of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, since many of the charges against the president stem from the nature of their sexual conduct.

A House vote for impeachment would "divide the country, gridlock the government and defy the will of the people," White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig cautioned yesterday.

Democrats presented their censure as a graceful way to avoid such a spectacle. But the committee defeated, 22-14, a resolution to rebuke Clinton for actions that "violated the trust of the American people, lessened their esteem for the Office of President and dishonored the office which they have entrusted to him."

All 21 Republicans voted against the measure, as did Virginia Democrat Rep. Robert C. Scott, who believed its language was too harsh. Democrat Maxine Waters of California voted present.

The resolution's proponents never expected the proposal to pass the committee, but they hoped the sight of the committee debating and voting on a censure resolution would pressure GOP leaders to schedule a censure vote on the House floor.

That hope receded last night when current House Speaker Newt Gingrich and incoming Speaker Robert L. Livingston made clear they would not allow such a vote.

The House "should not consider censure," Livingston wrote in letter sent to Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois late yesterday.

Gingrich also released a letter opposing a censure vote.

The president's allies expressed regret that Clinton had gone ahead with a trip to Israel instead of fighting the impeachment drive personally.

But the president insisted on pushing forward with official duties, this time trying to shore up the Wye peace accord he had helped forge. Changing the subject has often been a successful tactic for Clinton.

In Washington, Democrats had tried earlier yesterday to ratchet up the pressure on Livingston to schedule a vote on censure, which they believe could attract enough Republican votes to defeat the president's impeachment.

Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt, in a letter to Livingston, pointedly alluded to Gingrich, who for four years presided over an ineffective House rent by partisanship.

Failing to give members an impeachment alternative would only ensure those divisions will continue, Gephardt warned.

"If you are committed to allow everyone an opportunity to vote their conscience, then it is imperative that the floor debate make an allowance for a censure," Gephardt wrote.

"This first most important decision for you as a leader will mark more than the fate of impeachment. It will surely mark the kind of leader you will be, and thereby the kind of Congress we can expect under your speakership."

But Republicans on and off the Judiciary Committee continued to argue that censure would violate the Constitution, which does not mention censure as an option for punishing a president and would amount to an ineffective slap on the wrist for a president who has committed what they consider serious crimes.

Hyde called censure "similar to yelling at a teen-ager."

"It purges you of some emotion," he said, "but I'm not sure what it accomplishes."

Late yesterday, Hyde sent Livingston a letter stating: "It is my view that a resolution or amendment proposing censure of the President in lieu of impeachment violates the rules of the House, threatens the separation of powers, and fails to meet constitutional muster."

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