The Impeachment Committee: Profiles in Contemplation
January 10, 1974
WASHINGTON, D.C. — After the House Judiciary Committee finally voted to recommend Gerald Ford as Vice-President, Republican David Dennis, a balding, bespectacled Indiana conservative, shuffled his papers together and sighed to another Republican congressman, “Now we can get on to the easy stuff — like impeachment.”
The other representative shrugged. “Maybe if you’re lucky — if we’re all lucky — Nixon’ll just go away before it comes to that. It sure as hell would make me happy.”
For most of the 1973 session, the Judiciary Committee lived a very quiet existence, dealing with important pieces of legislation but hardly the kind to attract television lights and cameras. Since early November, everything has been different. “It was like magic,” comments a moderate Democratic member. “One day you’re laboring in total obscurity. The next day you’re handed the political bombshell of the century and told to either dismantle it or let it go off. I’m still not sure I actually realize just what I am going to have to deal with very soon.”
The early press accounts described the committee as a particularly rambunctious and ideological lot, who would almost certainly degenerate into a quarreling mob when impeachment finally came before it. “That’s a real over-statement,” says Rick Merrill, a key political operative for the liberal Democratic Study Group. “Chairman Rodino can hold that committee together fairly well and I’m not sure that there isn’t already a consensus among committee members on impeachment. Certainly, they’re all going to take it very seriously and it is a thoughtful, intelligent committee.”
At least nine members of the committee — all Democratic liberals — are thought to be ready to vote for impeachment right now. John Conyers of Michigan, Massachusetts’ Bob Drinan, and Don Edwards and Jerome Waldie of California have all sponsored impeachment resolutions. Charlie Rangel of Harlem, Liz Holtzman of Brooklyn, John Seiberling of Ohio, Barbara Jordan of Texas, and Bob Kastenmeier of Wisconsin are considered sure “yes” votes off their past records.
Of this group, Jordan and Waldie are probably the most important for vastly different reasons. Jordan is a tough, shrewd former Texas legislator who gauges the political implications of every act very carefully. During her tenure in Austin, Jordan played the legislative game so well that her white, male fellow representatives voted her to several key majority party positions.
“The other members of the committee listen to her when there are political judgments to make,” says one member. He goes on to note that Rodino has come to rely a great deal on Jordan for advice. “When it comes to the moderate members on the Democratic side,” this member continues, “Jordan is a key. She doesn’t even have to lobby for impeachment. All she has to do is suggest it as a politically smart thing to vote for.”
Waldie, a politically ambitious representative, is a close friend of Republican Chuck Wiggins of California. That makes him important since Wiggins will be one of two Republican members other Republicans will look to for advice on impeachment. “Wiggins and Waldie are so far apart it’s hard to believe they’re friends,” says another member. “But Waldie has an impact on Chuck and has swung him into liberal positions before.”
Another seven Democrats are generally considered to be good bets to vote for impeachment if pushed. Harold Donohue of Massachusetts is the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, A product of the Worcester political machine, he is given to taking naps at every opportunity and has been adrift on the issues since his friend Speaker John McCormack retired and stopped telling him how to vote. He is, however, susceptible to union pressure. Josh Eilberg is a congressman courtesy of the Philadelphia machine. His district is among the most liberal in the city; he would certainly be in no political trouble if he voted for impeachment, and he might be if he did not.
A month ago, Paul Sarbanes of Baltimore, a maverick liberal who bucked the local machine to gain election, might have had considerable trouble with a “yes” vote. A political foe, Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, had arranged for a 1972 redistricting plan which took thousands of black, pro-Sarbanes voters out of his district and put in huge chunks of a blue-collar, conservative area. Sarbanes won, but just barely. A congressional aide says that now, “all those blue-collar voters are pissed as hell at Nixon for dumping Agnew. Now we’re safer on impeachment.”
Two freshmen, Wayne Owens of Utah and Ed Mezvinsky of Iowa, have been part of the liberal block on the committee since they entered the Congress. Owens’s problem may be his ambitions. Only 32, he is said to envision himself as the second coming Bobby Kennedy. Owens wants to be the next senator from Utah very badly, a possible influence on his vote. Mezvinsky is a different type of congressman entirely. A conservative Republican member has described him as “a totally honest guy, the kind you respect even if you’re on the other side. He does what he thinks is right, not what may be the best politics.” On a floor vote, Mezvinsky could be effective since he is very well-regarded by other freshmen of every political shading.
And finally there is cigar-smoking, fast-talking Jack Brooks of Texas. Brooks like to describe himself as a Rayburn-Johnson liberal but most of his detractors see him as another kind of Texan. A former aide to ex-Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough says Brooks is “a shrewd man who is more interested in making money than being a congressman.” What Brooks is said to desire most of all is to succeed Chet Holifield as Chairman of the patronage-laden Government Operations Committee. On those grounds, the leadership should probably have his impeachment vote if desired.
Five Democrats are considered poor bets for “yes” votes. Jim Mann of South Carolina, Walter Flowers of Alabama, and Ray Thornton of Arkansas are of the breed of Southern pol who believe voting against a President is like voting against the flag. California’s George Danielson, the slowest committee member and the least skilled legally, is said to be a captive of district special interests who would find impeachment too great a blow to the status quo. Bill Hungate, Judiciary’s comedian, is already in trouble at home for some of his liberal votes. Fairly independent, he might switch at the last minute.
Observers feel that, among the Republicans, there are only three probable votes for impeachment. New York’s Hamilton Fish — best known nationally for defeating G. Gordan Liddy in a 1968 primary — has received a large amount of mail on the subject and his district has become steadily more liberal. Bill Cohen of Maine is a liberal bright-light of the party who has privately struck out at the White House on Watergate.
And then there is Tom Railsback of Illinois. Railsback is from a swing district and has been feeling the impact of Watergate. A particularly thoughtful man, he is considered to be worth 25 to 40 liberal-moderate Republican votes if he goes for impeachment. “He’s very effective on rounding up votes,” observes Merrill. “If he goes, he’ll take a lot of Republicans with him. It just happens he represents the kind of big-state Republican who could be in big trouble with Watergate.”
Privately, Railsback has been heard to observe that “the only thing the White House has to hold over us Republicans these days is the threat to have Nixon come and campaign for us in ’74.”
If there are to be other Republican votes for impeachment, they will be cast through the influence of Wiggins. Although a conservative from the district once represented by Richard Nixon, Wiggins has been appalled by Nixon’s actions of late. A measure of his influence among members of both parties is that two-thirds of the committee now believes a President does not actually have to commit a crime to be impeached. Wiggins contends that impeachable offenses are “conduct which exposed to light of day, produces moral outrage among the people which causes them to believe he is no longer fit to serve.”
A committee staff member believes Wiggins could pull up to six other Republicans into an impeachment move. Seven Republicans — McClory of Illinois, Smith of New York, Sandman of New Jersey, Hogan of Maryland, Lott of Mississippi, Hutchinson of Michigan, Froelich of Wisconsin — are considered sure no-votes by this staffer.
“If the committee really wanted to, they could get a majority to report out a bill of impeachment tomorrow,” adds the committee aide. “The vote would be something like 16-12 or 15-13. The votes are there.”
The current strategy of House Democratic leadership precludes such a vote. There are only an estimated 130 solid votes for impeachment among the House members. “We want to give both Democrats and Republicans a chance to go home and assess the situation in their districts,” says an aide to Majority Leader Tip O’Neill. “And — frankly — we want to give Nixon a little more rope to hang himself.”
So the Judiciary Committee will take a great deal of time on impeachment. Committee members agree it will be late March, at the earliest, before a vote is taken.
By then, Republicans and Democrats alike hope, Richard Nixon will be long gone. To a (wo)man, the committee members hope like hell they don’t have to deal with impeachment. “We are a pretty close committee,” observes one liberal member, “and we probably could keep the debate and proceedings pretty low-key. But there would have to be moments of yelling and screaming in a situation like that. It’s something none of us want, and we sure don’t want the political hassles.”
That may sound like wishful thinking, but a scenario in which 50 or 60 House Republicans tell the White House they will have to vote for impeachment and Nixon then decides to bail out is not totally implausible — and it certainly would make the reluctant members of the House Judiciary Committee very happy.