WASHINGTON — With the outcome hardly in doubt, about the only suspense during Friday's impeachment debate was whether the outnumbered House Democrats would walk out.
Another possible protest scenario had all 206 Democrats circling the Capitol, hands linked.
A third proposal had all the Democrats standing mute in the House chamber and simply letting Republicans do all the talking. "But too many people wanted to be heard," rued one House Democrat.
In the end, they played by the rules.
They registered their outrage through parliamentary maneuvers and did what lawmakers do best: talk.
Unable to slow--much less derail--the GOP's impeachment drive, Democrats were planning a brief walkout during a procedural vote early today as a show of protest against the Republicans' refusal to allow a vote on censure.
And many were darkly eyeing the future, warning of a congressional "wasteland" devoid of goodwill or bipartisanship in which little, if any, public business gets done next year in the wake of the controversy.
The first parliamentary skirmish came seconds after Friday's historic debate commenced.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Democratic delegate who represents the nation's capital, argued that since Washington's residents get to vote for president, their duly elected representative ought to be allowed to vote on whether to initiate a process to remove him.
Norton's request was briskly ruled out of order by the presiding officer, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.).
Then Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) moved to adjourn the House.
A 17-minute roll-call vote ensued but the motion to adjourn was defeated. Only after that did the marathon debate get underway, with some Democrats still hinting at protest actions in the long day and night ahead.
"We'll be fighting throughout the day," Bonior said.
Party Leaders Reach Truce on Debate
Democrats initially had demanded 36 hours of debate--the same amount that preceded the 1990 vote on the Persian Gulf War resolution. But Republicans refused.
Eventually, as the floor debate raged, Speaker-elect Bob Livingston (R-La.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) negotiated a truce.
The debate would end at 10 p.m. Friday, with all votes occurring today, after closing statements.
But before the vote occurs, Democrats will have more opportunities to invoke procedural hurdles.
Gephardt or one of his lieutenants at that point is expected to offer a motion to resubmit the articles to the House Judiciary Committee. That motion would contain "instructions" to amend the articles, probably with an option to censure the president instead of impeaching him.
Democrats have no illusions that their motion will pass, but they regard the vote as a way to force each lawmaker to take a public stand on censure as an alternative to impeachment.
On Friday, as the debate droned on, lawmakers of both parties drifted into the Speaker's Lobby just off the House floor to chat with swarms of reporters.
'Members Will Not Forget This'
And some pondered the long-term ramifications of the divisive debate.
"How do you get over the hard feelings of anger?" asked Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.). "Some say: 'Oh, it'll be fine.' But that's not reality."
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was even more outspoken. The contentious debate "will make it almost impossible for there to be any constructive bipartisanship between us," he said.
"The well will be so poisoned that it will be impossible for us to come together in the 106th Congress," said Lewis, an advocate of a protest walkout.
"There may be peaceful coexistence," he added. "But members will not forget this. There's no way we can forget it. The chasm will be too deep. The chasm will be too wide."
Republicans flatly rejected such predictions.
Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.) said that such Democratic rhetoric "should be recognized for what it is--scare tactics."
"They're trying to say the world as we know it will end if we don't stop this," Bryant said, adding that such issues as reforming Medicare and saving Social Security will be among the GOP's top priorities next year.
"We'll be bringing a Social Security plan to the floor. And if they don't want to vote for it, that's up to them," he said.
Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) readily agreed. Whether the next Congress can do the public's business, she said, "is absolutely up to them. Their obligation is to do the work of the people."
The angry words prompted Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), who had attended church Friday morning before showing up for work, to speak longingly of the spirit of Hershey, Pa., site of a 1997 bipartisan retreat designed to foster amity between Republicans and Democrats.
"We need another Hershey conference," Kildee said. "We need to try to reinforce civility."
But Bryant was not optimistic.
The next House will be even more closely divided along party lines than this outgoing one, he noted.