WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Tuesday beat back a Republican attempt to force them to vote on a divisive resolution to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney for "fabricating a threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction" to justify the war in Iraq.
The 218-194 party-line vote waylaying the measure by sending it to the judiciary committee capped a remarkable afternoon in which Republicans tried to outfox Democrats, switching their votes in a strategy that could have triggered an immediate vote.
"We're going to help them out," explained Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). "We're going to give them their day in court."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her lieutenants maneuvered to avoid a bruising floor fight. Such a clash would have forced Democrats to choose between their liberal base, which might cheer a Cheney impeachment, and a broader electorate, which might view the resolution as a partisan game in a time of war.
With the vote technically slated to last 15 minutes, she held voting open for more than an hour and finally forced the measure to an uncertain future in the committee.
That referral effectively shelved the issue for now, but not before the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, a far-left Ohio Democrat running for president, had a chance to read into the record three articles of impeachment against the vice president.
"Impeachment is not on our agenda," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). "We have some major priorities. We need to focus on those."
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) agreed that it was not in Pelosi's interest to advance the articles of impeachment. "If she were to let this thing out of the box, considering the number of legislative issues we have pending . . . it could create a split that could affect our productivity for the rest of the Congress," Conyers told Fox News.
The resolution said that Cheney, "in violation of his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the office of vice president," had "purposely manipulated the intelligence process to deceive the citizens and Congress of the United States by fabricating a threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify the use of the U.S. Armed Forces against the nation of Iraq in a manner damaging to our national security interests."
The 11-page resolution also charged that Cheney purposely deceived the nation about an alleged relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda and has also "openly threatened aggression against the Republic of Iran absent any real threat to the United States."
If the judiciary committee were to vote out any of the impeachment articles, the issue would then go to the House floor. If the House were to vote to impeach Cheney, the Senate could try him and, with a two-thirds vote, remove him from office. "This vote sends a message that the administration's conduct in office is no longer unchallenged," Kucinich said afterward. Predicting that the judiciary committee will be forced by public opinion to hold hearings, he added, "Hopefully, it will have a restraining effect on this administration to stop this madness."
Four Democrats joined Kucinich to vote against sending the impeachment resolution to committee.
They included Reps. Bob Filner of Chula Vista and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
At day's end, Republicans and Democrats were accusing each other of petty political ploys at the expense of important business.
At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino noted that Congress "has not sent a single appropriations bill to the president's desk this year . . . yet they find time to spend an entire work period on futile votes to impeach the vice president. It is this behavior that leaves the American people shaking their head in wonder at this Congress."
Cheney spokeswoman Megan M. Mitchell added, "It is one thing for Congressman Kucinich to use this political ploy in his presidential campaign. It is another thing to do so on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives."
Hoyer issued a statement chiding Republicans for turning the potential impeachment of a vice president into "a petty political game."
Insisting that House leaders have their eye on the ball, he added, "Speaker Pelosi and I have made it clear that this Congress is not going to proceed with impeachment, and is going to focus on critical issues facing our nation, such as healthcare for children and the war in Iraq."