Impeachment's final chapter
By Stuart Rothenberg
While most Capitol Hill insiders now believe the House Judiciary Committee is likely to send Bill Clinton's impeachment to the floor of the House, few Washington, D.C., observers expect the House will impeach the president, thereby saving the Senate the uncomfortable job of sitting as a jury at Clinton's trial.
A handful of House Republicans have already gone on record indicating they won't vote for impeachment (including conservative Mark Souder of Indiana and moderate Chris Shays of Connecticut), and there seem to be enough others who will turn thumbs down on impeachment to guarantee that the matter won't make it to the Senate.
The election results clearly frightened Republicans on Capitol Hill, leading some GOPers finally to conclude that the voters are indeed weary of talk of impeachment. Not only did the Democrats gain House seats, but the expected Republican turnout advantage -- which was based all along on anger about the president's behavior -- never materialized.
The election of Cong. Bob Livingston to be the next speaker also suggests that the process will come to an end quickly. Livingston sounds as if he believes the impeachment process needs to play itself out, and he emphasizes that each member must decide for himself or herself about the charges and the punishment. But unlike outgoing speaker Newt Gingrich, the Louisiana Republican seems more concerned with getting back to Congress' "regular" business, and he clearly wants to begin with a clean slate when he takes over control of the House of Representatives after the first of the year.
While Democrats call for the Republicans to simply terminate the impeachment process, that seems highly unlikely. Conservatives, a critical part of the Republican coalition, are demanding a floor vote. They won't be happy when the House fails to impeach Clinton, but they would be outraged if Republican leaders negotiated away the impeachment process with some sort of plea bargain.
The ultimate failure of impeachment will raise some interesting questions. Some Democrats, including House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and House Judiciary Committee member Marty Meehan, have made it clear that they would vote for some sort of censure of the president.
But a surprising number of conservative leaders seem skeptical of that form of punishment, arguing either that it gives the Democrats too easy of a way out or it simply isn't the appropriate constitutional punishment of the president for his actions.
And Republican strategists are split over what to do next. Some believe that the party would be better off dropping the matter completely -- "The public wants the matter closed. Over. Move on," one GOP insider told me -- while others suggest that the Republican base wants some formal reprimand of the president.
I wonder if the Republicans don't still have an opportunity to both express their outrage and embarrass the president. Many Democrats have talked publicly and quite critically about the president's behavior, insisting that Clinton's actions don't call for impeachment but warrant some punishment. It would be interesting if the Republicans took steps to see whether those Democrats would vote for a tough, detailed resolution that displayed Congress's disapproval of the president's behavior.
Clearly, time and the details of any resolution are problems for any post-impeachment effort. Nobody seems to want the Clinton-Lewinsky matter to drag on into the New Year, and any resolution would need enough Democratic support to insure that the Republicans wouldn't be seen as merely extending a partisan attack.
Tuesday, November 24, 1998
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