Impeachment Hearings Begin
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, four perspectives on today’s Judiciary Committee proceedings. We hear from NewsHour regular Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot; and joining him tonight are Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant, author Elizabeth Drew and Congress watcher Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Paul, what did you make of today’s proceedings?
PAUL GIGOT: I thought it went pretty much as expected. The Republicans posed as the defenders of the law, took a judicious, we’re just looking at the facts position, the Democrats positioned themselves as defenders of the president and defenders of fairness in the process. But the most important political fact is that both Republicans and Democrats are voting for the inquiry of impeachment. The differences are not over the fact of an inquiry but over the time and the scope.
TOM OLIPHANT: Sadly, however, I think that what’s really happened today is that the Clinton-Ken Starr confrontation has now been formally transferred to the Congress. And if positions have been hardening in the country and in this city for the last month and a half what happened today will pour concrete into those positions.
MARGARET WARNER: Did you see that positions hardening or obviously very hard?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Positions were hardening on the committee. This is a committee, as we’ve learned now over the last several weeks, that is the most sharply polarized perhaps in the entire Congress. I’ve watched this committee for a long time. I’ve never seen them on better behavior than we had today. Well, but on every significant vote where they might bring some kind of bipartisan agreement to try and fudge the differences. It was a party line vote. When they get to the House floor, we will see some Democrats voting with the Republicans. The question is whether it’s twenty or a hundred, but on this committee strict party line.
MARGARET WARNER: Elizabeth, there was much mention made of the Watergate precedent. You covered the Watergate proceedings. How did this compare to the Judiciary Committee of then, of 25 years ago?
ELIZABETH DREW: I think, Margaret, in two very striking ways, there is no center to this committee, as Norm and the others have been saying, whereas in the committee headed by Mr. Rodino, there were four to five uncommitted southern Democrats, moderate Republicans. You really didn’t know where they were going to go. You listened for their speeches, you know, with bated breath, to see what they were going to say, what clues they would give. And there was a process of finding a consensus, which Mr. Rodino worked on very hard, and of avoiding things that drew lines. The second one is the subject matter was of a totally different magnitude and order than what they’re talking about now.
MARGARET WARNER: Tom, what was the thinking for the Democrats behind presenting this alternative, which is really what occupied most of the afternoon, after the two counsels that presented their arguments?
TOM OLIPHANT: As near as I was able to figure it out, I think it went beyond just the one alternative, that was the first one that came up and it went on –
MARGARET WARNER: Yes. They had two already.
TOM OLIPHANT: And possibly there will be others. It was to maximize to the greatest extent possible within the time frame of one day, a bunch of votes that would end up being partisan, so that it wasn’t just one alternative that failed. It was something they dressed up from Howard Berman of California as a compromise and even a couple later on. And the idea was at the end of the day to have four, five, or six recorded votes in the committee where all the Republicans voted one way, all the Democrats voted the other way.
PAUL GIGOT: I also think they were trying to give some cover to Democrats on the floor, because what they want to do is make sure – they want — the White House wants as few Democrats as possible to vote for this Hyde resolution on the floor. If they can point to votes in the committee, which said, look, we tried to offer a limited scope, they can say, therefore, I can’t vote for the Hyde resolution, which may be the only one they get to vote for on the floor.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There were some substantive issues here as well. This wasn’t just political posturing. Democrats want to obviously narrow the focus, but they want to get very quickly to the question of what is an impeachable offense. And the Republicans don’t want to define an impeachable offense at this point. And there was some maneuvering around that that was not just designed to get party line votes. So I think they’re trying to see if they can nail that focus at least a bit.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, certainly, Elizabeth, the Berman alternative – his second compromise – that was the thing he tried to preserve. Let’s decide the standards for impeachment and then look at the facts. Why is that one so important to the Democrats?
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, I think they’re trying to show – first of all, they know they’re not going to carry any of these. And they hope to get a chance to offer an alternative on the floor, so that Democrats can vote for something, instead of against everything. And they’ve designed this alternative very much with where they think public opinion is. Pardon the double negative, but they think the people don’t want nothing to happen. They want some sort of statement that what went on was wrong, but they don’t want the president impeached. And so this resolution goes along those lines.
MARGARET WARNER: And why, Paul, are the Republicans so opposed to doing it in this reverse order that the Democrats wanted?
PAUL GIGOT: I think they feel that the Watergate precedent did not set standards of impeachment right at the start. They were evolved. They evolved with the facts, and that they’d like that to happen this time as well. We had everybody up there quoting Alexander Hamilton. I mean, he means something to everybody because the founders deliberately designed impeachment to be a political process, which was determined, given the mores and the facts of a particular circumstance.
TOM OLIPHANT: Interesting, however, though at the same time how Chairman Hyde, himself, at least acknowledged the thrust of some of the Democrats’ points by trying to pre-empt them over the weekend. For example, on time limit, while he opposed it in the committee, they made it very clear he wants this over by the end of the year. On scope, he opposed any effort to restrict scope, but he has gone out of his way to say it’s Lewinsky only. And finally, he has acknowledged that there are not the votes in the Senate to convict this president and throw him out of office and that that cannot happen without a change in public opinion.
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: But it’s an interesting dynamic, getting back to the question of what makes this different from 1974. In 1974, and there was a lot of discussion of this today, they did not set a time limit. But Peter Rodino said, trust me, we’re going to expedite this and Republicans were saying, what’s the matter, you don’t trust Chairman Hyde? Now, no Democrat was going to say we don’t trust Henry Hyde. And, indeed, everybody has great respect for Henry Hyde. But frankly, throughout all of this, there is an atmosphere that’s very different from 1974. Neither side trusts the other side at all. They don’t believe that if the leaders set a bargain, which they can do and they could in 1974, that they can keep it, and there’s a very poisonous atmosphere that was disguised with the nice talk today but which will come out more as time passes, especially on the committee.
MARGARET WARNER: You were trying to get in earlier.
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, to answer the question you asked me earlier about why the Democrats are focusing so on let’s define impeachable offense, aside from the fact they know it’s not going to go their way, I think they feel that the longer the discussion goes on, the more they will be able to make the point, their point, that what is being talked about in the Clinton-Lewinsky case does not rise to an impeachable offense. They just want to spend a lot of time. Now, again, as Tom said, Hyde kind of pulled the sting out of that too by saying, oh, we’re going to have a discussion, we’re going to have all the scholars in. And Paul is right. In ’74, they didn’t say, you know, if you did this, it’s an impeachable offense, or if you did that. They put out a study of history and what people had said and sort of guidelines. But they took the case then and said, do these things rise to an impeachable offense?
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s turn to the case that the Republican counsel laid out, and this was the first time we had seen David Schippers, the Republican counsel. First, just give us a sense, Paul, of who he is, where he came from.
PAUL GIGOT: He’s very much a Henry Hyde choice. He’s, like Henry Hyde, a Catholic, Chicago – Henry Hyde was not a prosecutor, but David Schippers is a former mob prosecutor. He worked, he told me, in the Justice Department when Bobby Kennedy was the attorney general. He is a Democrat. He has assembled a team of prosecutors. And you could tell – and in many respects was quoted in a lot of places in the 70′s in the Watergate case, becoming something of an expert on the Watergate experience. So I think for all those reasons Hyde wanted somebody who shared his values and had some experience.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes. But I think by reputation the word that comes most often from Chicago about Schippers is prosecutor, as opposed to Democrat, and I think that was reflected in the way he changed at least the wrapping paper off the basic structure of Starr’s case. You know, if you do it as an Algebra equation, I think, 11 minus 2 plus 6 is the Schippers’ version of this case. It is very much an argument, as opposed to evidence. It requires inferences to be drawn in order to reach it. If you read his presentation, it is really a rewrite of the Starr evidence.
MARGARET WARNER: Can we take this as – is this committee going to proceed on this redrafted 15 counts, or are they going to go forward on Starr’s?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: They didn’t make a determination of that. But it seems clear that they’re going to be guided – the Republicans will be guided very much by the direction that David Schippers has taken. And it’s going to be interesting, if you go back even to 1974, one of the things that many Democrats raised today, in that report, they made a very clear distinction – Richard Nixon was charged, and they said they had substantial evidence that he had back-dated tax dates information that would have been a criminal offense but because it was a personal offense, they weren’t going to make that a count of impeachment. So we’re going to get a lot of discussion that brings us back to those. And, of course, even though he’s got a somewhat different package of things that Schippers brought forward, different from what Ken Starr had, the basic focus here, the basic thesis that he has is very much the thesis that Ken Starr has, a conspiracy to withhold and mislead.
MARGARET WARNER: And on Abbe Lowell, the Democratic counsel, what outlines could you see, one of the points that Norm mentioned, was something he brought up?
ELIZABETH DREW: Well, I think both counsels were making political-legal statements. One was talking from one political point of view, I’m going to build a case that there is a criminal conspiracy that rises to impeachable offense. And the other counsel was going to say this is a whole set of things that grew out of a private consensual, sexual relationship, and it’s not – the things that grew out of it are not worthy of an impeachable offense. I thought it was kind of interesting when Abbe Lowell said, these weren’t lies about Vietnam; these weren’t lies about arms to Iran for – to send money to the Contras, that was Reagan, that was a constitutional issue, and wiser heads in both parties said, you know, we’re not going to make this into an impeachable question. And they let it go. So it was really saying, sorry, folks, presidents lie. Now you measure these lies against the ones that he was argued – implying were larger.
PAUL GIGOT: Implicitly, it was conceding that the president lied under oath. He was almost conceding that point and say – at one point he said, whether or not these are lies — but ignore them because they really don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses.
TOM OLIPHANT: And that’s the big difference. In other words, in his presentation on the one end he says we’re happy to defend on the facts, but they’re also happy to defend, assuming all the facts are true.
ELIZABETH DREW: Are true — there’s one key change. Excuse me. I’m sorry.
MARGARET WARNER: Actually, we’re just about out of time here. Bottom line here, can we assume that whenever they get to the Republican proposal, Norm, whether it’s tonight or tomorrow, that it’s going to be a party-line vote like the other one?
NORMAN ORNSTEIN: It will pass on a party line vote. It will go to the House floor, and then the question is how many Democrats, other than the Judiciary Committee members will support it, along with almost all the Republicans?
MARGARET WARNER: All right. I’m sorry. All the time we have. Thank you all.