Clinton: TV or not TV?

As the lame-duck House moves toward impeachment, the president counts votes and ponders another national address.

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

During his appearance Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee as a Clinton witness, Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman argued that a "lame-duck Congress" can't vote to impeach a popularly elected president. That issue has become more than just an academic debate in suburban Seattle's First Congressional District. There, lame-duck Rep. Rick White, a Republican, is expected to vote in favor of impeaching President Clinton for perjury, even though White lost his seat to challenger Jay Inslee last month in an election nationally considered a referendum on impeachment.

"This is a very grave matter," said Inslee, who saw his public support rise in his uphill congressional race last October when he aired ads attacking White and the Republican Party for the impeachment crisis. "Nobody can argue with a straight face that the people of the First District want to see impeachment."

White hasn't formally stated how he will vote on impeachment. "He has said he thinks perjury is an impeachable offense, but he wants to wait and see what the Judiciary Committee does," says White's chief of staff, Randy Pepple. Pepple acknowledged that the committee is virtually certain to vote out an article of impeachment on the perjury matter, and said "you can infer" that White would then vote the same way. But he added, "He won't make a statement until he sees the report that comes from Judiciary."

At least four other Republicans are in the same position as White -- defeated by Democrats, but likely to vote for impeachment anyway. The strategy of rushing to deal with the impeachment issue, which seemed to favor the president -- by getting the mess over with -- just a month ago, now hurts him, since the Republicans have a 21-vote majority in the 105th Congress, which will drop to an 11-vote majority when the 106th Congress takes office in January.

Ackerman's argument that the 20th Amendment was intended to ensure "that only a truly democratic House, and not a collection of lame ducks ... has the congressional authority" to impeach the president, was perhaps the best defense presented by the president's roster of witnesses on Tuesday. Even Clinton opponent Charles Canady, R-Fla., acknowledged it was the only "new" argument in a hearing marked by repetitive, partisan bickering.

Should the current House vote to approve articles of impeachment anyway, Ackerman said, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist "would be well within his rights to quash the lame-duck impeachment and remand the matter back to the new House of Representatives." Ackerman's testimony painted a picture of a Congress bogged down in procedural and legal controversy all through 1999 if the House votes out articles of impeachment this month. Other witnesses told the committee that a Senate trial would feature the cross-examination of Monica Lewinsky, graphic testimony about various sex acts and enough lurid content to compete with daytime soap operas and talk shows.

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But so far the prospect of such a spectacle isn't daunting many congressional Republicans. A month after a resounding election defeat led to House Speaker Newt Gingrich's departure and seemed to doom impeachment, leading Democrats and Republicans say there may now be enough votes in the House to send articles of impeachment to the Senate later this month.

Clinton and his advisors are deliberating about whether the president should do more to mollify congressional moderate Republicans, who have expressed anger at the tone of his answers to 81 questions posed by the House Judiciary Committee. The president is said to be considering another televised address to the nation to elaborate on his previous explanations and apologies.

Administration sources said they'll likely wait until next week, after the Judiciary Committee vote, to decide whether the president needs to mount a last-ditch personal defense. "There is no game plan at the moment," a White House aide told Salon. "It's more that we'll see how things are playing and make the important decisions then."

But the aide confirmed that the White House has no accurate count of how many Republicans plan to vote for impeachment. "There's great uncertainty about the vote count," the White House source said.

In fact, there never seemed to be a serious basis for the estimates that "15 to 20" House Republicans might vote against impeachment, which were being bandied about two weeks ago. An aide to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a moderate who opposes impeachment, says his boss was the source of the 15-to-20 figure. Pressed by reporters to estimate the number of anti-impeachment Republicans, Shays guessed at 15 or 20, then saw his guestimate enter an "echo chamber" of media repetition, the aide told Salon, which turned it into fact. With three Democrats (Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Virgil Goode of Virginia and Ralph Bell of Texas) expected to vote for impeachment, Clinton will need 14 Republicans to oppose impeachment in order to avoid a Senate trial.

But it's clear the president's defense was intended to play to moderate Republicans. Clinton's lawyer, Gregory Craig, opened the day with a much more low-key and deferential tone than that exhibited by David Kendall when he grilled independent counsel Kenneth Starr three weeks ago. "The president wants everyone to know -- the committee, the Congress and the country -- that he is genuinely sorry for the pain and the damage he has caused," Craig told the committee. The combative Kendall made no appearance before the committee, which some said was evidence of tension within Clinton's own legal team about how contrite and accommodating the president should appear.

There was plenty of evidence of tension within the committee, as its members resumed the partisan wrangling that marked Kenneth Starr's appearance Nov. 19. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a staunch impeachment opponent, derided committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., for defending Oliver North's lies during the 1987 Iran-contra hearings, but supporting impeaching the president for perjury today. Hyde was combatively unrepentant. "I'm glad you brought that up," he told Waters. "Trying to save Central America from a Castro takeover required clandestine operations. People's lives were at stake." But he cut off the discussion, telling Waters, "This isn't gonna be the Henry and Maxine show."

Back in suburban Seattle, the spectacle was disturbing to Rep.-elect Jay Inslee. "It'll be appalling to go to Washington and sit there on ice while the nation's problems fester and Congress fiddles with this," Inslee says. He held out some hope that the outgoing White would "see the light" and vote for censure, not impeachment, since "that's the will of the people."

"Congressman White doesn't govern by polls," counters White chief of staff Pepple. "He'll take into account the opinions of the constituents and the information he has when he goes back to Washington to vote on this."

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Republican Party