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House Votes Today

Bitter Debate Precedes Impeachment Decision

Congress: In tones alternately angry and grave, lawmakers set stage for likely Senate trial of Clinton. At least two of four articles are expected to be approved.

December 19, 1998|MARC LACEY and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"If we make every single one of the House members rumored to have an extramarital affair subject to a $40-million investigation," declared Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), "we may be faced with a number of empty seats in this chamber."

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) told her colleagues that she knew what the president must be feeling "because I spent the first 1 1/2 years of my career here defending myself against a partisan investigation" into her victory over Republican Robert K. Dornan.

She then warned: "Beware of the wrath of the American people when they rise up and hold you accountable for your actions today."

Democratic wrath was focused most pointedly on the decision by GOP leaders to block consideration of a motion that would have condemned Clinton's actions without recommending his removal.

"The American people have been very clear: they oppose impeachment," said Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "And they are looking for another solution--a just solution, a solution that condemns the president's wrongdoing, yet enables America to put this sorry spectacle behind us and get on with the country's business."

Arguing for censure, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) said that, if any article of impeachment is approved by the House, "we face a pointless trial in the Senate because there's no chance of a two-thirds majority approval."

GOP Critics Deride Censure

GOP critics, however, condemned censure as unconstitutional and meaningless.

"Censure would have about as much effect on a president of the United States as a parent yelling and shouting at a teenager," said Rep. Steven Horn (R-Long Beach), who announced just this week that he would vote for impeachment.

It was clear that lawmakers in both parties saw the debate as a historic one, the first presidential impeachment to go so far since Andrew Johnson sat in the White House in 1868.

Still, they disagreed markedly in how history might judge the vote.

"I am witnessing the most tragic event of my career in the Congress, in effect a Republican coup d'etat," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who voted a quarter-century ago to impeach President Nixon.

"Impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up extramarital affairs," he continued.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said that he was similarly glum but had no second thoughts about proceeding with Clinton's ouster.

"I take no joy in this decision but I make no apologies either," Sensenbrenner said. "America will emerge from this dark period of our history a stronger nation because we have demonstrated once again the resiliency of our democracy and the supremacy of our Constitution."

But nothing compared to the gloom hanging over the White House.

One senior White House official, who has worked full-time on the anti-impeachment effort, said it was "very disappointing" to lose most of the GOP moderates.

"I think there is a great tragedy in the absence of a middle [group] . . . which would have been able to demonstrate itself if there had been a chance to vote for censure," the official said.

By preventing that option, the official said, the GOP leadership split the House.

"That is really raw politics at the expense of the national interest," the official said.

Yet the White House already was working to influence the next stage of the process.

"We're going to be working very, very closely with the leadership in the Senate," the official said. "We are going to be in charge of our defense there; we won't have to rely on the Senate Democrats the way we had to rely on House Democrats."

Officials were approaching former senators for guidance. Chief of Staff John Podesta spoke with Bob Dole, the president's Republican opponent in 1996, who has said that the Senate should quickly censure Clinton rather than conduct a lengthy trial.

Even as lawmakers emphasized the importance of the proceedings, citing the words of the greats of history, an aura of business as usual permeated the special session of Congress.

The House chamber, filled nearly to capacity at the launch of the debate, before long was nearly empty, with lawmakers leaving the floor until it was their turn to speak. The spectator seats, as well, were only half filled.

"Where are they?" asked tourist Don Williams of Tucson as he gazed down at a largely empty chamber. "This is supposed to be a momentous occasion. That tells me their minds are already made up."

In fact, all but a handful of the members previously had declared their intentions, turning the long debate into a pitch to a public that largely has made up its mind too.

"The American people in their wisdom have implored us to leave this slippery road of impeachment and pursue instead the measured course of censure," said Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), citing poll results showing strong opposition to Clinton's removal.

But Republicans argued that laws trump polls.

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