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Analysis: Deal Dislodges a Hurdle for Clinton

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  • Full Coverage: Clinton Accused

  • By Dan Balz and Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, November 14, 1998; Page A6

    By settling the Paula Jones case yesterday, President Clinton removed a significant legal and political obstacle in his path and may have increased the chances for a speedy and compromise conclusion to the impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill.

    Clinton's decision to give Jones $850,000 not only ends the4½-year-old civil suit. It could raise the stakes for Republicans who have argued that Clinton should be impeached for allegedly lying in his deposition in the Jones case and later in testimony before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury.

    Many Republicans read last week's election returns as a signal from the American people to resolve the impeachment inquiry as quickly as possible. Now the White House and its Democratic allies in Congress will argue that the core of the case against Clinton has been eliminated.

    Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego, called the settlement "a good idea" from Clinton's point of view. "It takes one more irritation off the table," he said, "and whatever damage the case has done to him has been done."

    Jacobson said the settlement not only makes the Starr accusations "more moot," but "insofar as this can be presented by the administration as getting this behind it, that clearly is what the public wants right now."

    By itself, the settlement is no guarantee of anything for the president. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee demonstrated earlier this week that the election returns alone might not diminish their desire to vote out articles of impeachment against Clinton.

    But White House officials yesterday lost no time in arguing that the decision signaled Clinton's desire to put the issue behind him and the country. They no doubt will step up their arguments that the Republicans must now make a similar demonstration of their determination to bring the matter to an expeditious conclusion.

    "Any fair-minded observer would say the president is putting every distraction behind him, so it leads one to ask others, 'What are you doing to put distractions behind us?'" a Clinton adviser said yesterday.

    Some Republicans agreed that the settlement makes a presidential censure more likely.

    "It probably frees up the president to be able to cop a more serious plea in the sense that he's now able to say that the basic, underlying cause for all the false statements is over," said attorney Ben Ginsberg, a former counsel to the Republican National Committee. "He's going to use it as an offensive weapon to say all the charges that exist are about a case that no longer exists."

    With the Jones case still hanging over him, Clinton faced potential problems. The case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright in April but was still on appeal. Had it been reinstated by a federal appeals court, the effect would have been to reignite a matter that seemed to have been put to rest long ago.

    At the same time, Clinton faced the possibility that Wright or the appeals court would conclude that he had lied in the deposition last January. Wright hinted at that possibility in a legal finding earlier this year. A formal declaration would have given Republicans in Congress fresh ammunition to move forcefully against the president, but such a finding seems remote now that the case has been settled.

    Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a close ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said Clinton and his lawyers "made the calculation that if they didn't pay, it was not going away."

    If Clinton had not settled with Jones, Norquist said, the harassment suit "just lays there for another 10 nights of news over the next six months. 'Remember what the president did. Remember that he lies about that. Remember how he treats women.' They paid off to avoid the constant reminder."

    Clinton's hopes for avoiding impeachment also may have been helped by the other two developments yesterday: Starr's referral to Congress of information relating to Clinton's Oval Office encounter with White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and the independent counsel's 15-count indictment against former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell, who had been Hillary Rodham Clinton's law partner in Arkansas.

    Democrats and Republicans privately said the effect of those two moves could create a backlash against Starr as an unrelenting prosecutor who is doing whatever he can to damage the president. That is the argument the president's allies have made for months, even years. Yesterday some Republicans winced when they heard what Starr had done.

    "Ken Starr is the only person in America who's got lower poll numbers than [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich," said a Democratic ally of the president.

    Starr is scheduled to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for two days of testimony beginning on Thursday.

    If the settlement of the Jones case accelerates the search for a compromise to impeachment, it wasn't clear yesterday how the deal would be put together.

    Most Republicans and even many Democrats agree that Clinton deserves to be punished for lying to the country about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, with many saying he should receive some sort of censure. But in a hearing on Monday, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee showed no willingness to slow the drive to vote out articles of impeachment against Clinton.

    Compounding prospects for a quick resolution is the turmoil among House Republicans in the wake of the midterm elections. Gingrich is on his way out and his likely successor, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), is not yet installed. Other leadership fights won't be resolved until next week. That means the GOP leadership has no easy way to take control of the matter and may not for some time.

    "It's moving toward a resolution," one congressional Democrat said last night. "It's just a question of how that gets put together. The Republicans' instability at the top makes it harder because none of them can act with any authority. But at some point, their members are going to demand that they get them out of this."

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