House vote to impeach Clinton put on hold Attack on Baghdad postpones debate on impeachment

Ballot was set for today

December 17, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF David Folkenflik and Ellen Gamerman contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives stepped back last night from a landmark vote on the impeachment of President Clinton, after GOP leaders decided to postpone the impeachment debate while the United States wages military airstrikes against Iraq.

But in an ominous sign of political disintegration, Republicans openly questioned the motives of their commander-in-chief, as bombs were falling on Baghdad.

Congressional Republicans angrily accused President Clinton of intentionally staging military action to postpone an impeachment vote originally scheduled for today that is almost certain to go against him.

And they vowed to convene the impeachment debate in a matter of days, perhaps even tomorrow.

"We are reserving our right to move forward with the other action," House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston declared.

Democrats -- and some prominent Republicans -- pleaded with their colleagues to rally behind the president in a conflict with Saddam Hussein that most Republicans have been advocating for months.

Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed his belief last night that the strikes would have a dramatic effect on Iraq's infrastructure, reassuring fellow Republicans that "the operation was carefully planned over a long period of time."

But the skeptical response of GOP leaders was unprecedented in its violation of the tradition that domestic political disputes to stop at water's edge.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott declared, "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time."

House Republican Leader Dick Armey was even more direct, saying the president was rapidly "losing his ability to lead":

"The suspicions some people have about the president's motives in this attack is itself a powerful argument for impeachment," Armey said in a statement.

"After months of lies, the president has given millions of people around the world reason to doubt that he has sent Americans into battle for the right reasons."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter J. Goss cautioned that "now is not the time for partisan recriminations and accusations," but he pointedly added that "when the dust settles" he plans to conduct a "thorough investigation."

Democratic leaders indignantly dismissed the questioning of the president's timing, saying Republicans would have castigated Clinton if he had not attacked.

"With yesterday's report to the United Nations confirming that inspectors are no longer able to perform their essential functions, the international community has no effective ability to ensure that Saddam Hussein cannot threaten his neighbors or endanger U.S. interests and personnel in the region," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt in a joint statement.

"Confronted with these circumstances, we believe that the president has made the correct decision to undertake military action against Iraq at this time," they said. "Any delay would have given Saddam Hussein time to reconstitute his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."

Said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat: "Reasonable people, those who have been following the ups and downs of this crisis, cannot question the legitimacy of this moment."

The House will gather in special session this morning to pass a resolution supporting the troops engaged in the Middle East. But Livingston made clear that the gesture had nothing to do with backing Clinton.

"We are united -- Republican and Democrat -- as American citizens in the belief that Saddam Hussein must be contained," an agitated Livingston said.

Republican Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, threw his support behind the airstrikes, as did Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.

Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican and impeachment supporter, said of Clinton: "He has our full support as long as he's president to take any action he deems necessary."

But the spectacle of congressional leaders questioning the military actions of an embattled chief executive was chilling. A senior House defense aide said there was "deep skepticism on all sides," and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said the cynicism was justified.

The president's entire defense and foreign policy team, including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met last night in a closed meeting on the House floor to soothe Republican doubts.

It was a bizarre turn in the GOP's drive to impeach the 42nd president of the United States.

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