Disagreement over the gravity of perjury is shaping up as a wedge issue in whether President Clinton should be impeached, dividing even Republicans, including two former military prosecutors.
"The bottom line is if we're going to impeach judges for perjury and not impeach the president, there's something really wrong with our system," said Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican, the third-ranking member of his party on the House Judiciary Committee and the hawk of hawks on whether perjury alone is an impeachable offense.
"The alternative is we're saying the president is above the law," Mr. McCollum said in an interview.
Rep. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, is less certain about lies in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct case since, as he views it, Mr. Clinton may have been "caught off guard" while trying to protect his family from an immaterial fact in a case that was dismissed.
"If the president committed perjury before a federal grand jury, it is a slam-dunk. There's no question about that," Mr. Graham said.
Such divisions over the relative impact of specific charges torpedoed the only two impeachment trials not involving trial judges. In both politically laden cases - Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase in 1805 and President Andrew Johnson in 1868 - the Senate acquitted the officials even though the opposing political party held a two-thirds majority.
Democrats closest to the process see this issue eventually driving the debate.
"In the final analysis, this whole case will come down to a determination by the committee as to whether lying under oath, under these circumstances, is such an egregious assault on the constitutional order as to require impeachment," said a Democratic staff member familiar with the minority strategies.
"It's very significant, then, that there appears to be division on the question among Republicans," the staff member said.
Mr. Graham, 43, who is finishing his second term in the House, was a prosecutor in the Air Force judge advocate general's (JAG) office and in his home county. …