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Analysis: Strategy is GOP's Elusive Target



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  • Full Coverage: Clinton Accused Special Report

  • Full Text: Impeachment Hearings Transcripts

  • By Dan Balz and John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, December 2, 1998; Page A1

    If there is a strategy House Judiciary Committee Republicans are following in their impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, it is no longer evident-even to many of their GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill.

    Yesterday's actions by the committee, particularly the decision to expand the inquiry into Democratic fund-raising practices in the 1996 presidential campaign-a subject already explored by two other congressional panels-underscored the feeling that a solemn constitutional process has begun to veer out of control.

    "There's a major concern that we let it out of the box and we don't know how to get it back in, and it's blown up in our face," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who does not serve on the committee.

    At a time when the impeachment proceeding had appeared to be heading toward a conclusion-with most Democrats and some Republicans favoring censuring the president for his attempts to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky-yesterday's action raised the prospect that it could spill into 1999, a prospect favored by neither Republicans nor Democrats.

    Both House Republicans and Clinton's advisers say they want the process over, but actions of recent days have shown that neither side is ready to take the steps necessary to bring that about. Clinton's legalistic answers last week to 81 questions from the committee infuriated Republicans and seemed to embolden committee members to widen their inquiry.

    But Republicans not on the committee despair that Judiciary's tactics-yesterday's party-line vote on issuing new subpoenas related to campaign finance, following weeks of partisan bickering over procedures-may be self-defeating. "We had an opportunity to shape this debate and we allowed it to slip away," said a Republican strategist with ties to the House leadership. "Our inability to manage this effectively should not be the reason this guy is allowed to commit perjury and get away with it, but that looks like where we're headed."

    Some legal experts said yesterday's session underscored how unfocused the impeachment inquiry has become. The result has been to detract attention from examination of the most serious allegations in the report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr-particularly obstruction of justice-and put a spotlight on the partisanship and procedures of the committee.

    Throughout the year, Republicans assumed that by illustrating how serious Clinton's transgressions were, they would persuade the public that its favorable view of the president was unwarranted and that he deserved impeachment. That it has not turned out that way, in the view of some legal experts, is the fault of the committee majority for not pursuing a narrow case on the charges to which Clinton is most vulnerable.

    "When it appears everything is being done for political advantage, people [stop] paying attention," said New York attorney Mark Belnick, who served as a lawyer on the congressional panel that investigated the Iran-contra scandal in the late 1980s.

    While Belnick said he respects Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), he added that people will assume the committee is pursuing campaign finance allegations only after it has concluded it has no case on other matters. "Once you start to lose credibility, you start to lose the case, even if you are right on the merits," Belnick said.

    Greg Mueller, a Republican strategist, said the hearing on the legal basis for a perjury charge that was held yesterday should have been scheduled months ago. "I'm concerned that people have a roll-your-eyes mentality about this whole thing," he said. "Even though they're [the committee] getting to some candid and honest discussion about whether perjury is an impeachable offense, that should have happened around Labor Day."

    The absence of a clear strategy within the committee has raised questions about who is in charge in the House. Outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is on "personal time," according to press secretary Christina Martin. Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), who has made clear his desire for the impeachment issue to be gone before he assumes office in January, does not appear to be exercising much influence at this point either. Livingston's office did not respond to a query on the matter yesterday.

    Two months ago, Democrats were complaining that Gingrich was secretly calling the shots on the committee. Yesterday, they complained that nobody is in charge. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) appealed to Gingrich and Livingston to seize control of the process.

    "The events of the past week do not square with the Republican leadership's desire to conclude this inquiry by the end of the year," Gephardt wrote in a letter. "I fear this investigation is in chaos due to the lack of direction. I believe that it is incumbent on you to provide the leadership necessary to move the process forward."

    Congressional Republicans pointed to Hyde as the man in charge. "Chairman Hyde has not called to tell [Gingrich] we're ready to move forward, so the matter lies squarely in Henry Hyde's hands," Martin said.

    Other Republicans said the squabbling among their committee colleagues over how many articles of impeachment to draft reflected the lack of leadership outside the committee. "Committee Republicans are arguing with committee Republicans because there's no direction from the top," a GOP strategist said.

    White House advisers spent the day trying to decipher the motives of House Republicans. One theory they advanced is that at least some Republicans have calculated that, even though the impeachment inquiry is unpopular, dragging it into next year will effectively debilitate Clinton through the two years remaining in his presidency.

    In any case, the White House, which until now has projected an air of detachment toward the committee, took the decision to expand the inquiry as a green light to attack.

    White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart accused the panel of "going off on a variety of different fishing expeditions" and said, "When you look at the last 24 hours, you'll understand why the public has so little confidence in this process and why there's so little support for the direction the Republicans are taking this process in."

    With the level of acrimony rising, White House officials said yesterday they were planning to ignore today's deadline to tell Congress whether the president will accept an offer to present a defense on Dec. 8, and the Clinton team increasingly seemed to be leaning against presenting a defense altogether.

    "What's the point of making a presentation?" asked a White House official who did not want to be named. "What's the point of getting in the middle of their mud-pie-throwing contest? There seems to be no benefit."

    But Republicans said the White House and congressional Democrats have done as much or more than their members to undermine public confidence in the proceeding. Committee Democrats, they said, have made no attempt to ask serious questions about Starr's evidence or display an interest in getting at the truth of what Clinton did.

    Shays, who has said he does not believe the president's "outrageous" conduct rises to the level of impeachable offenses, said the president has contributed to demeaning the process.

    "When the president acts like he has done nothing wrong and continues to play a word game with honest questions, he almost pushes me and others who don't want to vote for impeachment to say this guy doesn't get it," Shays said. "He has made life very difficult for his friends, his enemies and those who want to be fair."

    Many Republicans argued against the popular wisdom that an extended impeachment inquiry will badly damage their party. They said that what happens in the first few months of 1999 will hardly echo by the time the 2000 presidential race captures the public's attention.

    What concerns them is that neither the Judiciary Committee nor the GOP leadership appears to have a strategy for bringing the whole process to a conclusion that will satisfy both conservative Republicans and the American people.

    Meanwhile, Republicans lamented how events are unfolding. "The only thing I can think of," said a House Republican, "is that somebody is thinking we'll just keep piling the evidence higher and higher and at some point the weight will be so great he [Clinton] will fall."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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