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Impeachment Scope Divides Judiciary's Republicans

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Tuesday, December 1, 1998; Page A01

    Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee are debating how to proceed next week when the panel votes on articles of impeachment against President Clinton, with some advocating just one count of perjury and others proposing as many as five separate charges stemming from the Monica S. Lewinsky matter.

    Key GOP members of the panel said in interviews yesterday that the Republican majority on Judiciary is virtually unanimous in supporting at least one count of lying under oath. But some members want to divide those perjury charges into two articles -- one covering Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case, another his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony. Other members want to vote on obstruction of justice, witness tampering and bribery impeachment articles.

    Even as Republicans wrestle with questions arising from the Lewinsky probe, the committee yesterday announced plans to launch an investigation into alleged fund-raising abuses by Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign.

    Committee aides said the panel would meet today, possibly in closed session, to discuss issuing subpoenas for testimony from Charles LaBella, the former head of the Justice campaign finance task force, and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, as well as subpoenas for documents from the Justice campaign finance probe and independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.

    "The committee has received information indicating that the LaBella and Freeh memoranda may contain allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the president," said GOP spokesman Paul McNulty. "We are duty-bound to investigate this information in the time we have remaining."

    The plan to seek subpoenas, sources said, followed a sealed court decision last week in which Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson refused to allow the committee access to LaBella's memo. The ruling said the document, which urges Reno to seek an independent counsel for campaign finance, was not relevant enough to the impeachment probe to warrant releasing grand jury information, the sources said.

    Jim Jordan, spokesman for Judiciary Democrats, called the committee's latest investigative foray "an absolutely bizarre turn of events, showing mostly the extent to which Republicans are willing to politicize a grave constitutional process."

    Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), however, issued his own denunciation yesterday, sharply criticizing Clinton's responses to 81 questions the panel sent him. "Instead of shedding new light on the key facts, the president chose to evade them," Hyde said in a statement.

    Some Republican panel members suggested that it would be difficult to open new investigative avenues, given the committee's self-imposed deadline of Dec. 31 for completion of its work. Committee member Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Tenn.) said the panel had to "focus on the current issues before us" -- the Lewinsky matter -- if it wanted to finish by then.

    Even while opening a new inquiry, the committee yesterday was winding down its investigation of matters connected to White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who alleged that Clinton groped her in the Oval Office suite. Sources said the committee abandoned its plans to depose Clinton's private attorney Robert S. Bennett as part of the Willey inquiry, and Democratic fund-raiser Nathan Landow, who was accused by Willey of seeking to influence her testimony, yesterday asserted his Fifth Amendment right in refusing to answer questions at a committee deposition.

    The Willey investigation was designed to demonstrate what Republicans called a "pattern of behavior" by Clinton that would strengthen the case for obstruction of justice, but Rep. Christopher Cannon (R-Utah) said that "thus far in the Willey case, I don't see the evidence" and indicated that at this point he would probably not vote for any impeachment article beyond perjury.

    Republicans have a 21-16 advantage on the committee, giving them the ability to pass impeachment articles over what will almost surely be unanimous Democratic opposition. However, GOP leadership sources outside the panel say that even a single perjury count against Clinton would be difficult to pass in the full House and that any other charge stands little or no chance.

    Nevertheless, interviews with five key GOP panelists showed a determination to press forward. "The goal of the committee should be to reach a conclusion on as many issues as possible and present the whole menu to the full House," Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) said. "If the House chooses less than soup to nuts, that's the House's prerogative. But I think the committee should present the full menu."

    Any articles of impeachment are likely to be offered as separate resolutions on the floor, Judiciary sources said, giving lawmakers the choice of defeating some while approving others.

    All the Judiciary Republicans interviewed yesterday acknowledged that a perjury charge is the one most likely to pass the full House: "If perjury is not enough for an impeachment vote, I don't know what is," Cannon said. But "abuse of power and obstruction of justice, they're not as open and shut, arguably," Inglis added.

    Bryant, however, argued that Starr's allegations of witness tampering by Clinton warrants impeachment as much as perjury does. "It continues to baffle me that people don't see that as I do," he said.

    Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) agreed: "The president's guilty of almost all of those," he said. "Having reviewed it very carefully, I believe he committed perjury more than one time and obstructed justice three times."

    According to committee aides, both sides' chief investigators are expected to deliver presentations to the panel Dec. 9, the day after the White House is invited to make its defense. The committee would then debate and vote on articles of impeachment Dec. 10, Dec. 11 and possibly Dec. 12, aides added.

    Clinton's defense team continued to deliberate on how it would proceed. White House sources said White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff could present a summary argument on Clinton's behalf, but not call any witnesses. There has also been discussion about simply declining the invitation, on the grounds that Clinton's team has already made its case and that nothing he did is impeachable.

    At a minimum, Clinton's private attorney David E. Kendall will send a statement, White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart said, though Clinton won't appear: "I think the president has answered the questions of the committee."

    Staff writers John F. Harris and Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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