WASHINGTON -- After a one-day delay in deference to military action in Iraq, a bitterly divided House of Representatives will begin a historic debate today on the fate of President Clinton, with impeachment now an all-but foregone conclusion.
Confident that they have the votes to pass at least one of four articles of impeachment, Republicans pushed forward yesterday, brushing aside vociferous Democratic argument that the impeachment process should be put on hold until military action ends in the Middle East.
The president is accused of lying under oath, obstructing justice and abusing the power of his office, all to hide his sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
And the House is almost certain to impeach the 42nd president of the United States, virtually along party lines. Democratic objections, GOP leaders charged, were simply last-ditch delaying tactics.
"The troops are in the field to protect our right to do exactly what we are doing," said incoming House Speaker Robert L. Livingston.
"We do not have a king. We do not have the divine right of princes. We have a president accused of violating the law."
Said California Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the first flying ace of the Vietnam War: "When I was coming down in my parachute in Vietnam, I didn't give a rat's rear what Congress did."
But Democrats were not ready to give in, charging that the Republicans' single-minded drive toward impeachment has shown what House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior called "a lack of judgment, a lack of proportionality, a lack of common sense."
Retiring Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, a Democrat who is a respected moderate voice on foreign policy, pleaded with Republicans to relent, predicting "one speech right after another, criticizing very harshly the president, saying he lies, saying he has no credibility, and projecting for all the world to see that the president doesn't have support."
Debate today will begin under a hail of recriminations and a cloud of uncertainty.
Democrats refused to agree to a game plan for the day's action, so no one knows how long the speeches will last or when the votes will be cast. The actual votes on four separate articles of impeachment may not come until tomorrow afternoon.
Democrats said Livingston's decision to schedule the impeachment vote for today -- allowing only a one-day pause for a show of unity on Iraq -- was a sign that he had capitulated to
the right wing of his caucus.
Democratic aides said Livingston had told House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephart on Wednesday that he did not believe the impeachment debate should take place while hostilities are under way.
But after meeting with Republican House members later that day, Livingston left uncertain the time for rescheduling the vote, suggesting it could come as late as next week. By yesterday, the vote was on for tomorrow.
'Don't want to wait'
"There's a strain in his party that is bent on driving this president out of office, and they don't want to wait for anything," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. He noted that, because Livingston has not been formally elected speaker by the full House, he can't afford to alienate any member of his tiny Republican majority.
Republican House members said they welcomed Livingston's willingness to take their views into account.
"I was the second person who got up to speak at the caucus meeting, and I asked Livingston if the media reports that he had already agreed to a delay were true, and if so why we were even there," said Rep. Barbara Cubin, a Republican from Wyoming.
"He said it wasn't true, that he wanted to hear from us.
"After two hours of debate -- with some people arguing there should be no delay and some who wanted to wait indefinitely -- we came to a consensus that Bob should make the decision. I'm very pleased. I only wanted to wait 24 hours."
Motives for pressing on with the impeachment debate and vote were as much practical as political, other GOP members said.
"People had plans, we're coming up on Christmas," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican.
The military action in Iraq has only added one more hurdle to a process that has been bedeviled by partisanship from the day independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his impeachment report to Congress in September.
Impeachment hung heavily over the proceedings even yesterday. The 417-5 vote to approve a bipartisan resolution endorsing the objectives of the administration's Iraq policy belied the bitter partisanship that lay just beneath the surface.
Republicans delicately sprinkled in references to "other matters" come and "pending matters" before the House. And they tried to steer clear of incendiary charges hurled Wednesday night, accusing the president of launching an air war to foil impeachment.
Taking the offensive
But Democrats took the offensive, refusing to let Republicans forget those charges as they praised the military action.