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(Not an) Impeachment Hearing

"It looks like we are hosting an anger management class," Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) told his colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee this morning.

He had a point.

House Democrats had called the session, given the anodyne title "Executive Power and Its Constitutional Limitations," to allow the left wing to vent its collective spleen. The left, led by diminutive Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), wants impeachment proceedings against the president. Democratic leaders have made clear there will be no impeachment, because that would be practically ineffective (there isn't enough time) and politically reckless (it would disrupt a campaign environment that heavily favors Democrats).

They therefore settled on a compromise: the non-impeachment impeachment hearing. Kucinich and his ilk would be allowed to talk about impeachable offenses at a hearing, but it would not be called an impeachment hearing.

John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman, delicately skirted around the word impeachment in his opening statement, referring obliquely to "the power to remove" office holders. He then defensively listed, for the benefit of those who say he has done "too little, too late," the various ways in which he had probed, prodded and otherwise hassled the Bush administration -- inoculation against the charge, sure to come, that he wasn't taking up impeachment. He closed with a plea to "find a way to work together."


"Hearing on Impeachment on Friday," trumpeted a press release from David Swanson, a far-left activist affiliated with Kucinich.

"We are here having impeachment proceedings," agreed Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), from the far right.

"This is not an impeachment hearing," Conyers felt obliged to remind everybody.

"Maybe," proposed Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-Calif), "what we're here for is impeachment light.... We're in that never-never land of accusing the president of impeachable offenses but not taking action to impeach him."

There was more truth to that than Democratic leaders could admit in public. Faced with continuing threats from Kucinich to embarrass his Democratic colleagues on the House floor, leaders arranged the hearing on a Friday when the House was out of session to diminish the attention it would get. They packaged Kucinich with other witnesses, including Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who does not favor impeachment, and Bob Barr, the Libertarian presidential candidate.

Conyers waited 20 minutes after the official 10 a.m. start to give the impeachment activists, who had lined up for hours, time to savor the moment with their various cheers and whistles in the committee room.They applauded loudly when Kucinich was escorted into the room by his (much taller) wife.

But their joy diminished quickly when Smith, the ranking Republican, revealed the unspoken truth everybody knew: "Nothing will come out of this hearing with regard to the impeachment of the president," Smith needled. "The Democratic leaders have said time and again they do not intend to bring any articles of impeachment."

Still, the hearing gave a rare chance for left wingers to let their anger out as various Democratic members, during an hour of opening remarks, made hollow calls for impeachment. "This committee should immediately begin impeachment hearings!" thundered Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a key ally of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. The audience cheered.

"Let's restrain ourselves, please," Chairman Conyers counseled.

By Dana Milbank  | July 25, 2008; 12:00 PM ET
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