WASHINGTON — The dogfight has begun.
Behind closed doors, the House Judiciary Committee already is living up to its reputation as one of the most bitterly divided panels in Congress--a collection of 37 lawmakers who cling close to their parties and spar ferociously.
In procedural vote after procedural vote last week leading up to the soon-to-be-considered question of whether an impeachment inquiry of President Clinton is required, the panel fractured into predictable partisan blocs and revealed its deep ideological divide.
Members butted heads on whether Clinton's videotaped testimony ought to appear on the network news. They disagreed on whether to cross out with a marker descriptions of raw sex acts.
Even before these intense arguments, one Democratic member had worried aloud that Clinton might suffer the same unfairness as Richard Jewell, the man wrongfully accused in the 1996 Olympic bombing. Across the aisle, a GOP colleague who has been pushing for Clinton's impeachment for more than a year has seemed giddy that it may well happen.
If these 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats were run-of-the-mill jurors--and displayed the very same preconceived notions, animosity and self-interest in the outcome--the judge in the case might storm from the courtroom and declare a mistrial.
But this is impeachment, and a political dimension is inevitable. So too is conflict, given the disparate attitudes of the Judiciary Committee members.
The committee routinely deals with hot-button legal and social issues, and it is this agenda that traditionally has scared off moderates and lured to the panel true believers on both sides of the aisle.
Whether they are considering flag burning, abortion or school prayer, committee members eagerly lean into their microphones and vehemently beg to differ.
Most of them learned the same legal fundamentals in the classroom years ago. But during their real-world careers as judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys--not to mention politicians--they have strayed in vastly different directions in their takes on the world.
Their ranks include Republican Bob Barr, an ultraconservative former attorney general from Georgia who first made his mark in Congress by sponsoring the Defense of Marriage Act. The bill, reluctantly signed by Clinton shortly before the 1996 election, spelled out that states have the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. Barr had been pushing impeachment long before Monica S. Lewinsky's name surfaced in January, arguing Clinton had abused his office in other matters.
Leading the conservative charge with Barr are two Florida Republicans. Rep. Bill McCollum--who already has disputed the contention of some Democrats that even if Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Lewinsky, perjury in that context is not an impeachable offense--and Rep. Charles T. Canady, who abandoned the Democratic Party as a state legislator in 1989 and has never looked back.
Other gung-ho Republicans on the committee include Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, who regularly pushes for tougher death-penalty statutes, and Rep. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, one of the leaders of last year's effort to oust House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) because he was not deemed conservative enough.
Among Democrats, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the party's ranking member on the panel and the sole holdover from its Watergate hearings, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) have emerged as scrappy defenders of the president's interests.
Both castigated the decision to release Clinton's videotaped testimony and the related legal material. Waters, once a key lieutenant of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in the California Legislature, said the Judiciary Committee's handling of the issue amounted to "the most partisan proceeding that I've ever been involved in."
Offering strong support to their efforts has been Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), a voluble former municipal judge who has mentioned the Salem witch trials and referred to Jewell, the falsely accused bomber, while arguing for fairness for the president.
Another committed Clinton defender is Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the brother of White House Communications Director Ann Lewis and one of the committee's more quick-witted members (following last week's decisions, he quipped: "This is a new concept . . . of unilateral bipartisanship").
For the White House, this is a dream team, an assemblage of left-leaning lawmakers who have displayed far less public angst over the president's conduct than some of their middle-of-the-road Democratic colleagues.
As the Klieg lights hit the committee, expect to see Californians well-represented, offering a mix of legal experience and pure spunk.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) brings to the debate respected legal judgment and a cooperative relationship with panel Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).