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Judiciary Committee votes for impeachment inquiry

Resolution now goes to full House

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, October 5) -- The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee voted late Monday to recommend a full impeachment inquiry into the sex, perjury and obstruction of justice allegations against President Bill Clinton. The full House could vote on the panel's proposal Thursday or Friday.

Following a day of historic deliberations, the panel approved, 21-16, a Republican proposal for a free-ranging House probe that would not be limited to Independent Counsel Ken Starr's report on the Monica Lewinsky matter and would have no deadline for completion.

Also in this story:

Two Democratic alternative resolutions that would have limited the length and scope of such an inquiry failed earlier in the day on party-line votes.

The atmosphere in Rayburn 2141 -- the location of hearings on Watergate more than 24 years ago -- was dominated by a combination of hard-line partisanship and sober musing on members' constitutional responsibilities.

The counsel for the Republican majority kicked off the afternoon session with an hour-long briefing on his staff's review of Starr's referral of allegations sent to Congress last month.

Republican chief investigator David Schippers recommended an even broader approach to possible impeachment than that laid out by Starr, outlining 15 potential grounds for impeachment instead of the 11 offenses alleged by Starr.

Deleting some of the independent counsel's allegations and adding others, Schippers said he had determined there was "substantial and credible evidence" that Clinton may have obstructed justice and committed perjury in an attempt to keep secret his relationship with Lewinsky.

Schippers' Democratic counterpart, Abbe Lowell, told the committee that both Starr and Schippers only compiled "a laundry list" of possible offenses. Impeachment requires "a far higher threshold" that the evidence does not meet, Lowell argued.

Lowell urged the panel to define what an impeachable offense is "before leaving on a difficult and uncharted voyage," hoping to find a "compass somewhere along the way."

Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) said the committee would follow the example of former Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino during the Watergate hearings in which he rejected the setting a standard of what constitutes an impeachable offense.

Hyde kicks off session

The day's proceedings started with a committee vote to open the session to the public, followed by opening statements from all 37 panel members.

Henry Hyde
Rep. Henry Hyde  

Hyde stressed the importance of the committee's task. "Today it's our responsibility and our constitutional duty to review those materials referred to us and recommend to the House of Representatives whether the matter merits a further inquiry."

"Let me be clear about this," Hyde said. "We are not here today to decide whether or not to impeach Mr. Clinton. We are not here to pass judgment on anyone. We are here to ask and answer this one simple question: based upon what we now know, do we have a duty to look further, or to look away?"

The 37 members of the panel did not abandon their reputation as one of the most partisan committees on Capitol Hill, lawmakers -- well aware of the cameras -- were on their best behavior and observed the ground rules set out by Hyde.

Even so, they clearly quickly staked out their positions on the impeachment question, with many Republicans ready to say they thought the president should ultimately be impeached. Democrats, while careful not to endorse Clinton's conduct, argued that his behavior did not rise to the level of impeachment.

John Conyers
Rep. John Conyers  

Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the president's conduct did not rise to the level the founding fathers deemed impeachable because it was not "a serious abuse of power or a serious abuse of official duties."

"This is not Watergate; it is an extra-marital affair," said Conyers, the only member of the panel to have served during the investigation of President Richard Nixon.

Investigators present the evidence

Schippers, a longtime Democrat, outlined the exhaustive review he and his staff conducted over the past few weeks since Starr sent his 445-page report, and 18 boxes of supporting material, to the committee.

David Schippers
Republican chief investigator
David Schippers
 

He said they found evidence of 15 possibly impeachable offenses, including false testimony by Clinton in both his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit and before the federal grand jury.

The president may also have conspired to withhold evidence and tamper with witnesses in the Jones case and before the grand jury, Schippers said.

Schippers recommended dropping the abuse of power charges by Starr, but added several others. The additional allegations was downplayed by Lowell who said Schippers was just "subdividing the charges."

Lowell said the Judiciary Committee was not supposed to be "an extension of the Independent Counsel's office" and criticized the majority staff for rewriting the Starr's report.

Attacking the Starr referral directly, Lowell said, "The charges are often overstated, based on strained definitions of what is an offense under the law, are often not supported by actual evidence in the boxes and are sometimes, as in the case of counts 10 and 11, the product of zeal to make a case, rather than to state the law."

Addressing one point of contention between the two sides, Schippers said that, at the suggestion of the Democrats, the counsels for the committee looked over all additional material in the independent counsel's possession that was not turned over to Congress. That material was "irrelevant," the GOP counsel told the panel.

Members stake out impeachment positions

As they considered launching the impeachment process for only the second time this century, members of both parties focused their opening statements on the importance of their constitutional duty.

"Could anyone look into the faces of (the founding fathers) and tell them it really doesn't matter that the president abused his power, lied to the American people, perjured himself and subverted the rule of law? Anyone who can answer yes to that question does not have the right to sit here today," Rep. Bob Barr (R-Georgia) said.

In one of the most impassioned speeches of the day, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Florida) insisted Congress should return its attention to the more important matters of the country. "The president had an affair. He lied about it. He didn't want anyone to know about it. Does anyone reasonably believe that this amounts to subversion of government?

"Does anyone reasonably believe that this is what the founding fathers were talking about? For more than 200 years since that convention in Philadelphia, Congress has never removed a president from office. Is this where we want to set the bar for future presidents? I plead with this committee to end this nonsense," Wexler said.

Bill McCollum
Rep. Bill McCollum  

Citing figures that 115 people were now in jail for lying to a federal grand jury, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Florida) said, "Even if it were only shown to us that the president of the United States lied under oath and committed perjury in the civil deposition he took, or even more seriously before the grand jury when he testified just a month or so ago, if that is all that is proven, that is enough for us to impeach and enough for him to be thrown out of office."

Taking a play from the White House strategy book, Conyers went after the independent counsel, saying Starr may have mislead the American people by not disclosing his contacts with Paula Jones attorneys and then "apparently leaked raw grand jury material to the press, not for legal reasons but only to embarrass the president of the Untied States, an act for which Mr. Starr is currently being investigated..."

Wexler also criticized Starr's probe, accusing the independent counsel of having "distorted our system of justice in a politically inspired witch hunt that rivals McCarthyism in its sinister purpose, that asked mothers to betray daughters, Secret Service officers to betray their highest charge, and lawyers to betray their clients, dead or alive. All in search of a crime to justify five years of work and more than $40 million of taxpayer's money."

Hyde predicts a three-month probe

Hyde said Sunday he wants to complete any probe within the next three months.

"It is my hope and prayer we could finish by New Year's," Hyde said on NBC's "Meet The Press." However, he also indicated that a Democratic proposal to end any impeachment probe by Thanksgiving was a "nonstarter."

"But it would be wonderful if we could," Hyde said on "Fox News Sunday." "I'm the last person in the world that wants to stretch this out. All of us are weary of this ... but we have a duty -- a constitutional duty -- to see it through."

However, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Missouri) expressed skepticism that an impeachment inquiry would conclude before the end of the year.

"New Year's resolutions sometimes get broken," Gephardt said on ABC's "This Week." "I also don't have a lot of confidence, from the way that Republicans have run other inquiries over these last two years, that [Hyde's] wish will be followed."


Investigating the President

MORE STORIES:

Monday, October 5, 1998

    Transcripts:
    Schippers, Lowell briefings before Judiciary panel, part 1 | 2
    House Judiciary Committee meeting opening statements, part 1 | 2 | 3
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