TOPICS > Politics

Swing Votes in the Impeachment Hearings

December 9, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Some reaction now to the President’s impeachment defense and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: And joining us for that are two members of Congress not on the Judiciary Committee. They are among a group of 20 to 30 Republican moderates the White House has been hoping to persuade to vote against impeachment. Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey has said previously she was inclined to support impeachment while Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut has said he is opposed.

Welcome both of you. How good a job do you think, congresswoman, that the president’s team did today in presenting the president’s case?

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA, (R) New Jersey: Oh, I think, without question, in my mind they did a very poor job, not only today. You heard the assertions of legalistic parsing and hairsplitting; I agree with that. The legalisms were atrocious, and I thought they would do a far better job, particularly since we’ve had now an accumulation of [David] Kendall, the lawyer for the president originally not really addressing any of the substantive issues when he went up against Judge Starr, then the partisan tirades of the committee that have – committee Democrats that have never addressed the substance of the issues, and then the 81 non-answers to the questions, which were alluded to today. I think cumulative effect of that is demonstrating that they’re really trying to treat it like a political issue, rather than the constitutional legal issues that I believe are at the heart of the subject, that the are the principles that we have to deal with here, regretfully so. I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but I am really appalled and disappointed.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, I want to get your reaction. I want to apologize to our viewers for the background noise of where you all are sitting. But, congressman, do you think that the president’s team – either the panel this morning, the panels yesterday, or Mr. Ruff today – succeeded in changing any minds or moving any minds, at least among your colleagues?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS, (R) Connecticut: Well, marginally. I mean, they didn’t make a lot of mistakes, but they weren’t very persuasive either. I mean, this president needs to do something a bit out of character for him. He simply needs to tell the truth. He needs to tell the truth, and that will go a long way to helping him at least deal with impeachment.

MARGARET WARNER: And by saying tell the truth, what do you mean? What more would you have liked to have heard than you heard today?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Really what I’m saying is, it’s not the lawyers that are going to help, and it’s what Bill Clinton says himself. The problem is that lawyers have a way of keeping you out of jail but destroying your credibility in the process, and they have a lot of help obviously from the president. And so the bottom line for me is they’re into legalese and right now they just need to acknowledge the fact the president lied, he did not tell the truth, he did not tell the truth in a number of instances, he broke the law. They need to acknowledge that he broke the law, but they then need to point out, as I think is the case, that the impeachable offenses were not proven and the proven offense were not impeachable. That’s their best argument, and I think it’s a valid one.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, take the first part of that, that the impeachable offenses aren’t provable – that was one of the things that Mr. Ruff – he tried to present an alternative view of the facts – did he make any headway, or did you see anything in his interpretation of the facts?

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA: Not with me, not in my opinion, and I listened rather carefully to a number of the questions that were presented by the Republicans, and there were no answers there. Look, the question that the Congress has to face when the Judiciary Committee reports its articles of impeachment, as we learned just minutes before I went on the program, there are going to be four proposals for articles of impeachment, and the thing that the House of Representatives has to focus on is whether or not there is substantial and credible evidence that perjury and/or obstruction of justice and the other – the other third issue – will be proven. Now, we don’t have to prove that. We’re in a way a grand jury. But if there’s substantial and credible evidence that crimes were committed, perjury and obstruction of justice, then we have to send it over to the Senate. That’s where the trial will be conducted. But in this case I think it’s clear that there has not been any declarative evidence based on these two days of hearings that perjury was not committed.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, yes, comment on that issue about whether – what the House’s role is here. Is it – as the congresswoman says – simply to decide whether there’s enough evidence to send it to trial?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: I don’t believe that when you deal with impeachment that you just have probable cause. I think you have to – at least I feel I have to be convinced that the president should be removed from office – that he committed high crimes. I’m not comfortable just sending it to the Senate, feeling there’s probable cause. And this is talking about a – really almost an awesome shutdown of government, a trial in the Senate. I’m not going to be casual about that aspect of it. I have to be convinced he committed high crimes. And anything less than that I think isn’t acceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: And congresswoman –

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA: May I comment on that. And this is a matter of judgment and between us, it’s extraordinary that we two moderates, who so frequently agree, are here at exact opposite ends from each other. I do not interpret our constitutional responsibility in the same way that Chris Shays does, and I know it’s a matter of conscience for Chris, and it’s a matter of conscience for me as well. But I don’t interpret my constitutional responsibility in that way. I believe I have to judge it on the legal, substantive issues that are involved here, and then the judgment and the trial goes on in the Senate. But I do not believe that we unnecessarily have to drag this out for months not doing the nation’s business. I think we absolutely have an obligation to do both.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, address now the other half of your statement that the provable facts aren’t impeachable. Are you essentially accepting the White House’s view that to be impeachable, the actions have to subvert our system of government?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, I believe that the president committed crimes. I believe he committed even serious crimes. I don’t believe he committed high crimes, and that’s where I really had to make my determination on whether the president should be impeached or not. I thought high crimes were the misuse of the FBI and the IRS and the White House Travel Office. And Mr. Starr cleared him of that. I thought it was a misuse and high crimes were committed in terms of 900 FBI files in the possession of the White House, mostly Republicans. And Mr. Starr cleared him of that. He cleared him of Whitewater. And so I’m left with the fact that the lesser crimes are really what’s before Congress right now. I think that’s one reason why the Judiciary Committee started to reach out to see if they could find more, and they’re really stuck with the Starr Report. It’s just not reaching the level of high crimes.

MARGARET WARNER: And Congresswoman, what do you think this standard for high crimes –

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA: High crimes or misdemeanors, and I do believe that perjury and/or obstruction of justice qualify as impeachable offenses. I do not believe that anyone is above the law, and I do think there’s adequate evidence that perjury before a grand jury, which is what we’re talking about, is subject to trial.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, before we go, I’d like to ask you also about a “Dear Colleague” letter you sent out this afternoon with Tom Delay, the Republican whip who supports impeachment, both of you arguing against censure. Why are you against censure and why did you send out that letter today?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, we sent it out yesterday.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, I’m sorry. I just got it today.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: I’m sorry. Maybe it was sent out today. We wrote it yesterday. But I believe very strongly as well that we have a responsibility to do – make one major decision, should the President of the United States be impeached and removed from office? And that’s the decision before us. And I don’t think we should cloud it up with other choices. That’s maybe something people want to deal with in the future, but, in my judgment, the issue before us is that simple question. And frankly, I get a little concerned about getting into the situation where we decide to have censure reprimand of a president. I think that could happen quite often. We could have the censure of the week or the censure of the month if we’re not careful. So I think it’s up or down on that issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying – what are you saying about whether you’d like to see it come even to the floor as an alternative?

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: I don’t think it should come to the floor as an alternative. I think next week if the House votes out articles of impeachment, that’s what we should decide. And frankly, the Senate is probably the one that is more responsible for the issue of punishment. The issue of impeachment is not an issue of punishment. It’s an issue of whether we think the president should be removed from office. And I take very strongly and dearly and almost sacredly the fact that when the American people elect a president, they have elected that man or woman to be the president. I need high crimes to overturn that election of the American people.

MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman, briefly, do think censure should be presented as an alternative?

REP. MARGE ROUKEMA: No. I totally agree with Chris Shays here. I do not believe so. In the first place, some people are trying to use it as a dodge to avoid the essential constitutional issue that we have before us, but in the second case, it is, I am convinced, the responsibility of the Senate if as a part of that trial, if they should determine that censure should be part of it. In addition, in addition, under our system of government, I think there are large questions as to the constitutionality of the House of Representatives under a separation of power turning around and censuring a president. And I think, as Chris has said, that could open a door for an awful lot of abuses.


MARGARET WARNER: We do have to go – briefly.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Bottom line is I think censure is being used as an accommodation for the members who don’t want to make the tough choice.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Great. Congresswoman Roukema and Congressman Shays, thank you both very much.