Debate ends, impeachment vote is today 3rd attack pounds Iraq

House result all but certain

Republicans starting to HTC plan their strategy for trial in Senate

12 'prosecutors' named

December 19, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a debate yesterday shot through with raging partisanship, a tortured and torn House of Representatives will convene this morning to vote on the impeachment of the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.

The House's impeachment of a president for the first time in 130 years is all but a foregone conclusion. Democrats spent yesterday intermittently pleading for national forgiveness and hurling invective across the aisle at Republicans -- but largely declining to engage the other party in debate over the law.

Republicans have begun preparing for a landmark trial in the Senate that would decide whether Clinton should be convicted and removed from office.

But House members still summoned the will to argue well into last night over whether Clinton had lied under oath, obstructed justice and abused the power of his office to conceal his affair with Monica Lewinsky -- and whether those charges should merit the second presidential impeachment in history.

Republicans framed the debate as a principled one over "the rule of law," contending that everyone, including a president, is equal before the Constitution. Anything less than impeachment, they argued, would weaken the fabric that holds together a civil society.

Democrats just as passionately warned that impeachingClinton for what they said was essentially lying about sex would weaken the presidency and consign the national body politic to a downward spiral of recriminations and paybacks.

"My colleagues, we have been sent here to strengthen and defend the rule of law, not to weaken, not to attenuate it, not to disfigure it," exhorted Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who, as the first speaker, tried to set a lofty tone for the day's debate.

"This is not a question of perfection. It's a question of foundations. This isn't a matter of setting the bar too high. It's a matter of securing the basic structure of our freedom, which is the rule of law.

"No man or woman, no matter how highly placed, no matter how effective a communicator, no matter how gifted a manipulator of opinion or winner of votes, can be above the law in a democracy," he said.

Democrats countered that the president has pleaded for forgiveness and confessed to the "sin" of marital infidelity. It is time, they argued, to finally put the scandal behind the country and begin what they called a national healing.

"We need today to begin to practice a different kind of politics," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt.

"We need to stand today as a unified body -- Republicans and Democrats, liberals, moderates, conservatives -- and reject raw, naked partisanship. We need to turn back -- the chance is still there -- before our nation and our democracy have become inalterably and permanently degraded and lowered."

But the two parties appeared to be speaking over each other's head. Republicans are virtually unanimous in their assertion that Clinton lied under oath, first in a deposition with Paula Corbin Jones' attorneys, then before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury. And a perjurer, Republicans said, must be impeached, placed on trial in the Senate and perhaps removed from office.

Democrats are just as united in their conviction that Clinton's obfuscations to hide a tawdry sexual affair did not meet the Constitution's impeachment standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Indeed, they contend, impeaching the president for the Lewinsky matter would dangerously lower the bar for impeachment and turn a grave constitutional responsibility into just another weapon in the political arsenal. Democrats argued strenuously for a lesser punishment, such as a harsh congressional censure, which the president has invited.

Only one Democrat, retiring Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, stood to voice his support for impeachment. "The most basic rights of the people will be preserved only when all elected officials at all levels tremble before the law," McHale declared.

A scant few Republicans -- Reps. Peter T. King and Amo Houghton of New York, followed late last night by Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County -- stood to speak in opposition to impeachment.

"For a president to be impeached, for an election to be undone, there must be a direct abuse of power," King said. "We are a nation consumed by investigations, by special counsels. We are a nation obsessed with scandal. As Republicans, we have failed to rise to our obligations."

Houghton looked beyond today's vote, to an aftermath that he warned damage the nation.

"Today, we deal with the law," Houghton said. "Tomorrow, we deal with people's lives. When all the argument is done, when the votes are taken, this is what we must work for: the humanity and the healing of this nation."

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