Members' words and demeanor belie solemnity of the debate Behavior in chamber looked more like farce

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

WASHINGTON -- The rhetoric was at times lofty, the task solemn. But the House debate on the impeachment of the president yesterday sometimes played out more as partisan farce than as constitutional tragedy.

The day's purpose was steeped in history: the first presidential impeachment debate in 130 years. And indeed, at 9: 30 a.m., when the House clerk read in full the four condemnatory articles of impeachment, a packed chamber sat in rapt attention, as though the proceedings were destined to live up to their billing.

But when the presiding member of the House, Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, admonished lawmakers not to compare President Clinton's behavior with that of any House colleagues, the Democrats jeered. And the solemnity of the debate drained away like air from a balloon.

After Democrats agreed with Republicans to wrap up debate at 10 p.m. and return this morning to vote, House members deserted the chamber in droves in the midst of the historic debate.

By midday, the House chamber was only slightly more full than when members debate, say, the annual energy and water spending bill. Democrats hurled charges of injustice and coup d'etat. Republicans from the Judiciary Committee earnestly tried in vain to parry the invective by reciting legal verities. Democrats had decided not to argue the legal points but rather to assert that the penalty of impeachment did not fit the crime.

Outside the House chamber, members lounged in the lobby, chatting amiably with reporters. Congressional staff passed around tabloid newspaper stories, tittering about the latest revelations of sexual affairs on Capitol Hill. And the major networks cut away to their regular programming.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is recovering from hip surgery, decided yesterday that it was not worth the cross-country flight to cast his vote against impeachment, because the results today are a foregone conclusion.

For weeks, Democrats have complained that since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his impeachment report four months ago, House members have cheapened the impeachment process.

But in a cynical, media-driven age when Americans are increasingly turning away from politics, that may not be the fault of any one political party. Few members on either side of the aisle appeared to be taking the proceedings too seriously.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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