'Madness' or justice? Weekend of debate divides Washington

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In the end, it almost went unnoticed.

At 1:20 p.m. on Saturday, when the small, digital counter on the wooden-paneled House wall reached 218 "yea" votes - all but a handful cast by Republicans - William Jefferson Clinton became only the second president in the history of the United States to be impeached.

One person briefly clapped. No one gasped or cheered. Ironically, 130 years after Andrew Johnson was impeached on the same House floor, the packed chamber mostly ignored the president's fate. Instead, members joined the din of a rancorous, profoundly partisan drama that may hold far graver consequences for the country.

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Indeed, the rawest emotions vented during two days of impeachment debates last week spoke less to Mr. Clinton's misconduct than to the bitter political divisiveness it has fueled. Despite desperate pleas for unity, members say they fear partisanship may now be spiraling out of control.

"This is the French Revolution on fast forward, and nobody is hitting the stop button," exclaimed Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, standing in the ornate golden halls of the Speaker's Lobby as the final impeachment votes were cast.

Milling around nearby, Rep. Peter King (R) of New York agreed. There is "a madness to the whole thing," he said. "We are in a state of instability whether we realize it or not ... There are no winners in this."

Unquestionably the most riveting yet alarming moment of the debate came at about 9:30 Saturday morning, when the lanky House Speaker-elect Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana sauntered down to the front podium to address the full House.

"This debate has done nothing to bring us together," Mr. Livingston said somewhat fatalistically. Although he had hoped for healing, now, he felt, the quest for constitutional justice must come first: He called on Clinton to step down.

"No! No! No!" arose the chant from the Democrats, who booed and hissed. "You resign! You resign! You resign!"

In his next breath, Livingston did. To a stunned silence, he somberly announced that he would heed his own words, drop his bid to become Speaker, and quit Congress to "set the example" for Clinton "to follow."

As Livingston strode from the room, Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida, wiping tears from his eyes, leapt from his front-row seat and hugged him.

Reporters in the standing-room-only press gallery craned their necks for a glimpse of Livingston, as citizens watched in amazement from packed balconies.

But the shock quickly vanished on the Democrats' side. Rep. Jose Serrano (D) of New York, took to the floor. "This place is full of hate," he bellowed, "because of what they tried to do to our president."

Boasting that he had grown up in public-housing projects of the South Bronx, he warned: "The bullies get theirs - and you're gonna get yours too!" exhausting his time as he yelled at the Republicans.

At that, the gray-haired GOP Rules Chairman Gerald Solomon (D) of New York pounded his fist on the podium, demanding: "Regular order! Regular order!"

The impeachment debate didn't start out with such acrimony - or excitement. On a crisp, sunny Friday morning on Capitol Hill, it opened quietly with House Chaplain the Rev. James David Ford reciting the Prayer of St. Francis: "Where there is hatred, let us so love...."

Wielding the gavel was Rep. Ray LaHood, the firm but even-tempered Republican from Peoria, Ill., who sat in the Speaker's chair at the request of outgoing Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, seen by many as a far more polarizing figure. Representative LaHood, who organized a "comity" weekend retreat for members last year, repeatedly won applause from both sides of the aisle for his fairness.

"The rules prohibit members from engaging in generally abusive language toward the president," Mr. LaHood said, and reminded them to maintain "a level of decorum that properly dignifies" the House.

Indeed, there was such a lack of firestorm or fanfare that, after briefly showing up, the vast majority of members trickled out of the chamber. Of the 50 or so people remaining for the marathon 13-hour session, most were staff members and only a couple dozen were lawmakers.

Nevertheless, many members spoke passionately - drawing upon everything from the Bible and personal anecdotes to Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Papers - to bolster their arguments.

Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, the rotund, silver-haired chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, lumbered down to the podium at about 10 a.m.

In an eloquent, populist appeal for upholding the rule of law for all men - and thus impeaching Clinton for alleged perjury, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice - Representative Hyde quoted an 1838 speech by Lincoln: "Let reverence for the laws be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap, let it be taught in the schools."

Warning that American democracy will be in jeopardy if the chief executive is allowed to break the law, Hyde closed by urging lawmakers to impeach. "The president is our flag-bearer ... and the flag is falling. Catch the falling flag as we keep our appointment with history."

An hour later, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, who will move to the Senate in January, rose in the president's defense. "This is a bittersweet day for me," he said, echoing other departing Democrats whose last House votes would be against impeachment.

Although what the president did was "reprehensible" and deserves punishment, Mr. Schumer said, "lying about an extramarital affair, even under oath, does not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors." He argued for censure as the "proper punishment."

Comparing Washington's politics of scandal in the 25 years since Watergate to the Greek trilogy about the murderous House of Atreus, he said impeaching Clinton along party lines would only trap the nation in "an escalating chain of revenge."

Indeed, earlier in the day, minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri won the only sustained, standing ovation by Democrats and Republicans when he demanded: "The politics of smear and slash-and-burn must end."

But animosity seethed just beneath the surface. Tempers flared during a heated exchange in the Speaker's Lobby when liberal Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island called conservative GOP member Bob Barr of Georgia a "racist" - and Mr. Barr lashed back by slighting Kennedy as a "young man."

By Saturday, the already firm partisan lines were harder than rock. The GOP stance was solidified by the loss of Livingston, just days after an investigation by Hustler magazine threatened to expose his adulterous affairs.

A teary-eyed Rep. Tom DeLay, the majority whip from Texas, took to the floor to say he had been feeling "very depressed about this whole proceeding." But after seeing Livingston act with "honor and decency," he said, "I feel great."

Democrats, too, grew sharper after failing to win a vainly hoped-for vote on censure, which Representative DeLay had vigorously fought - despite last-minute begging.

"We are deeply disappointed," said Mr. Gephardt on the Capitol steps as he led a brief walkout of the Democrats after their censure motion was rejected as "non-germane."

By 2 p.m., two articles of impeachment had passed and the partisan venom seemed to spill outside, where a crowd of pro- and anti-impeachment protesters on the Capitol lawn waved flags and signs with slogans like "BOOT BILL."

"This is a political implosion," said Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, as he headed out of the Capitol amid the chants. A moderate who has criticized the president, he bemoaned the impeachment as "a divisive act that will weaken the Congress."

"Politics," he observed, "should be the art of compromise."

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