Morella breaks ranks, opposes impeachment Maryland Republican one of few in party to support Clinton

December 19, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Constance A. Morella's autumn of indecision ended late last night as the moderate Montgomery County Republican declared she would vote against impeaching a popular Democratic president whose policies she has often supported.

"The president's actions in both words and deeds have disgraced him, his family and his office," Morella said during a speech in the waning minutes of yesterday's historic debate. "However, putting the country through the turmoil and tumult of a Senate trial that could last months, while the many important issues facing our nation go unaddressed, is wrong.

'Sorry chapter'

"It is clear that the American people want us to close this sorry chapter in our history and move on to resolving the challenges that face us," said Morella, one of a few Republicans to break ranks with her party yesterday.

She had been Maryland's only representative whose vote was in doubt: The state's three other House Republicans had already called for President Clinton to resign and also said they would vote to impeach him. The state's four House Democrats said they would vote against impeachment and denounced Republican leaders for refusing to allow a vote on censure as an alternative.

The indecision of Morella and some other moderate Republicans had helped fuel intense interest in their votes as reporters and advocates on both sides descended on the undeclared lawmakers.

For more than two hours last night, Morella, who has seemed uncomfortable under national scrutiny, perched on the edge of her seat as the debate rolled on. Her declaration came after the result of today's impeachment vote was all but certain.

Though she had previously chosen not to argue publicly against impeachment -- unlike Rep. Peter T. King, a New York Republican -- she said after her speech last night that in recent days she had privately sought to persuade wavering Republican moderates to join her against impeachment, which she called too severe a punishment for Clinton's transgressions.

Few Republicans agreed.

'Epicenter'

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a moderate Republican from the Eastern Shore, forcefully called for Clinton's impeachment during a one-minute address on the House floor.

"The president is at the epicenter of this storm," Gilchrest said. "Its duration and tenor has always been under his control."

Then, quoting Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Gilchrest said, " 'Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.' Mr. Speaker, this debate is about the principles of equal justice under law."

Three of Maryland's four Democrats took to the floor to oppose impeachment, which would put Clinton on trial in the Senate. All three argued that the process was unfair and that the charges, even if proved, did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland contended that the impeachment drive was the grand finale of a House Republican leadership intent on running roughshod over its Democratic opponents.

'Exceedingly unfair'

"The process that the majority has pursued in this matter has been partisan, driven, I believe, by animus and exceedingly unfair," Hoyer said. "It has been unworthy of our duty and our responsibility.

"I have said that the president's conduct has defamed himself and his presidency. But it has not amounted to treason. It is not a case of bribery. And it does not amount to high crimes and misdemeanors endangering our freedom or our democracy."

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, said Republicans had an "unseemly obsession" with sex.

"This is about sex," Wynn said. "The Republicans will jump up and down [and say], 'It's about lying.' Even if you accept the arguments the Republicans are making, it's lying about sex. They talk about law, but they've forgotten about justice."

Baltimore-area Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, another Democrat, said Clinton's misconduct stemmed solely from personal matters.

"President Clinton's misleading statements had nothing to do with the official duties of his office," Cardin said. "They were designed to conceal an embarrassing, highly inappropriate, personal relationship. As such, they do not rise to the level of impeachable offenses."

Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County spent much of the afternoon polishing up a letter to his constituents, saying Clinton's impeachment was warranted because, Ehrlich said, he knowingly lied under oath about his involvement with Monica Lewinsky and obstructed justice by trying to cover it up.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who supports Clinton, said he thought about the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who faced a Congress angry about his reluctance to confront the former states of the post-Civil War South.

"I thought about how we have a president here today who has made it his business -- more than any other president -- to make sure that people understand that every human being has a value, that every person ought to achieve their destiny," Cummings said in his office, which is decorated with many political mementos, including four photographs of the congressman speaking with the president. "It's kind of sad."

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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