The mood on Capitol Hill starts ugly, gets worse After Livingston's speech and Democratic walkout, vote seems anticlimactic

December 20, 1998|By Marcia Myers and Ellen Gamerman | Marcia Myers and Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In this climate, even the Pledge of Allegiance can prompt partisan catcalls.

Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, a New York Republican, rose yesterday to deliver the pledge, yesterday's first order of business for the House of Representatives. After he reached "with liberty and justice for all," spectators in the gallery who were against impeachment began shouting, "ALL." Their point: justice was being delivered only to the Republicans, since censure was not an option.

The calls eventually hushed, but it took two slams of the gavel to stop them.

The day only got uglier.

A few minutes later, Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston took to the floor. Before he reached the stunning moment when he announced his resignation, he told the House that President Clinton should resign. Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and staunch impeachment foe on the Judiciary Committee, began shouting "No!"

She shouted "no" nearly a dozen times, each time pounding the desk where some Judiciary Committee members were encamped. Several other Democrats joined in the chant. Then, she began to shout, "You resign!" -- a phrase she yelled several times as she stared straight at Livingston.

Near her, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a veteran of 34 years in the House, patted his hands down as if to hush the crowd. When the quiet finally came, Livingston finished his thought: "I was prepared to lead our narrow majority as speaker but I cannot do that job."

Soon, he left the floor to the applause of Republicans. Many Democrats cheered for him as well. Among those offering him a standing ovation: Rep. Maxine Waters.

It was hard to balance such events with the inevitable impeachment vote.

Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican, was hypothesizing just off the House floor about the events that led to Livingston's decision when his pager went off.

He froze in mid-sound bite.

"We don't have any votes, do we?" he asked, frantically looking for the beeper that could be calling him to the floor for the historic moment.

Not to worry -- the most important vote many members said they would cast in their careers was more than an hour off. Wamp returned to topic A.

"We need someone to reach out to the other side before this House melts down," he said of a new speaker. "This is a war."

Dozens of Democrats lobbed their grenades in that war when the impeachment vote finally came. Although they eventually voted "no," first they stalked out of the House chamber en masse and stood in solidarity in the cold East Front of the Capitol.

"Go back and do your job!" shouted a spectator. "Democrat hero!" yelled another. John Hobine, a protester from Virginia, held his 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, and screamed, "Clinton is no example for my daughter."

Maggie leaned into her father's shoulder as the crowd heckled him back. "I want Bubbles," she said, calling for her pet animal as her father whisked her away.

Inside the chamber, the long-awaited impeachment occurred at 1: 19 p.m. That was the instant the Republicans garnered the decisive 218th vote to approve the first article.

The slate-gray panels on the walls were illuminated with members' names and their votes: Red for "no" and Green for "yes."

"The president is impeached," a spectator mumbled. "You were there."

The moment arrived in an anticlimactic blur. Moments before, the Democrats had emerged and walked down the Capitol steps. The crowd applauded. A few shouted "God Bless America!" and "God Bless the Democrats!" Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and colleagues moved before the cameras to say they were deeply offended and would not give up the fight. Then they disappeared back inside to vote and it was done.

"That was it?" one woman muttered.

But for Patty Simmons, a Virginia Democrat, it was a moment well worth the wait. She came for her father, a retired history and civics teacher who died last spring.

"This is historic," she said, "and he would be absolutely disgusted if I hadn't come."

At 1: 24 p.m. an elderly man pedaled a rusty bike across Independence Avenue at First Street, the radio in his red, white and blue wicker basket emitting this brief snippet of news to pedestrians at the crosswalk as he passed:

"The Congress of the United States has just voted to impeach the president."

@4 The man pedaled on, radio blaring, and was gone.

Outside the Capitol, all that was missing was Madame Defarge.

A woman in a clown suit with a hat of balloons passed by, rolling a wheeled trunk. A man on stilts covered with long striped pants followed close behind.

About three dozen demonstrators of largely anti-impeachment sentiment protested with signs and chants, but bystanders seemed more entertained than moved.

Jan Sommer, in town for a wedding, was one of the minority for impeachment in the gathering. When a small group of Republican lawmakers appeared at the top of the steps, she stood in the middle of the crowd and spoke out. Shouted, actually.

"Thank you!" Sommer, a 40-year-old Californian, called up to them.

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