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THE HOUSE DEBATE

Impeachment Inquiry OKd

The House, in 258-176 vote, opens formal proceeding. 31 Democrats back GOP plan.

October 09, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For only the third time in the republic's 210 years, the House opened a formal impeachment proceeding Thursday against the president of the United States, and its largely party-line vote signaled a rancorous investigation.

By a vote of 258 to 176, the House authorized its Judiciary Committee to investigate whether President Clinton committed "high crimes and misdemeanors"--the Constitution's vague standard for impeachment--by committing perjury and obstructing justice in concealing his indiscretions with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

Not one of the 228 Republican members of the House voted against the resolution authorizing the investigation, and they brought with them only 31 Democrats, most of them conservatives.

By contrast, the House vote establishing an impeachment investigation of President Nixon nearly 25 years ago was 410 to 4.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said it is his aim to have the inquiry completed by year's end. But it could easily be broadened if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sends Congress additional evidence from his continuing investigation of Clinton.

At the White House, the president pledged his cooperation with the inquiry, even as his aides quickly condemned the House debate as "injected with politics."

"I will do what I can to help ensure that this is constitutional, fair and timely," Clinton promised during a session in the White House Cabinet Room.

But, he added, "it's not in my hands. It is in the hands of the Congress and the people of this country and, ultimately, in the hands of God. There is nothing I can do."

Gesturing with his right palm turned upward, Clinton said: "I have surrendered this. This is beyond my control."

With the impeachment review likely to get underway after the Nov. 3 elections, it was clear Thursday that many of those Democrats who voted with the Republican majority did so because they fear a political backlash as they head into tight reelection contests.

But if they prevail in November, they are expected to return to their Democratic base and join what is likely to become an extraordinarily bitter struggle against Republicans over the remaining two years of Clinton's second term.

After the vote, one Democratic staff aide on the Judiciary Committee said that members of his party likely will challenge the impeachment process every step of the way.

Lawmakers Pound Their Fists

Signs of the coming fury could be heard as both Democrats and Republicans stood in the uncharacteristically full House chamber (only one House member, Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, did not vote, and only because her daughter was ill). Mindful of the dramatic moment, lawmakers pounded their fists, waved their arms and argued in tough, almost-always partisan language about how they believed the inquiry should proceed.

Impeachment is a solemn matter, they stressed, second only to declaring war. It is an event so sobering that Benjamin Franklin once called it the Constitution's "alternative to assassination."

More often than not, they harkened back to the ghosts of Congresses past, recalling the Founding Fathers at the nation's birth and former Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), who presided over the House's impeachment review in the Watergate scandal a generation ago.

"We're not flying by the seat of our pants," said Hyde, defending his decision to use the Watergate model as his guide for the investigation. "We're riding on Peter Rodino's shoulders."

But Democrats argued that it was a rush to judgment. They demanded but did not get a limited inquiry. They warned that an open-ended investigation would open the gates for a Republican stampede through the myriad controversies that have dogged the Clinton presidency.

At one point, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) climbed up from his seat and, speaking out of order, shouted into a microphone that the Republican proposal reminded him of a page from the old New England witch trials.

"I submit," he said, "that after we adjourn, we move to Salem, a quaint village in Massachusetts whose history beckons us hence."

Others were outright flippant. "This is clearly my saddest day as a member of this body," said Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), who then turned to his Republican counterparts. "They would impeach a ham sandwich," he said. "That's the reality of the situation."

Speaking for the Republican leadership, Hyde announced after the vote that the inquiry officially will begin with staff lawyers researching the law, conducting closed-door depositions with witnesses and undertaking other initial spadework.

Tougher Road Seen in Senate

Full-blown public hearings are not expected until sometime after election day and nobody knows for sure who will make the witness list. If the inquiry leads to a House vote approving articles of impeachment against Clinton, the matter then would be sent to the Senate for trial. A two-thirds majority is required for conviction.

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