By Juliet Eilperin
But in a closed-door session with congressional leaders Tuesday, the speaker gave the first glimpse that he is considering the matter from a more partisan perspective. According to several Republican sources who attended the meeting, he sought to reassure his colleagues that their political fortunes in this crucial election year will likely improve -- and part of the reason could be the report on allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice possibly involving the president that he expected Starr to deliver relatively soon.
"Does anyone doubt we're going to have this material in two months?" one participant recalled Gingrich saying. In contrast to his more anxious colleagues -- some of whom fear taking on a popular president -- the speaker appeared to welcome the report's arrival.
Time, he said, benefited the Republicans and would cause the president's standing to decline. The president will be weaker in the early fall, Gingrich predicted.
Gingrich's brief comments were made in the context of assessing Republicans' chances in the fall elections. He buttressed his argument by citing the historical fact that a second-term president's party tends to lose seats in an off-year election.
The meeting came the day before an Arkansas judge dismissed Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton. Democrats have cheered that development as a further political boost for the president, but Republicans and Starr himself have said it does not affect the potential perjury and obstruction-of-justice issues facing Clinton.
Several participants in the meeting -- all of whom insisted on anonymity -- said the speaker broached the subject after the group began discussing how to counter White House criticism of Republicans. The group, which included Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), did not discuss the topic of impeachment after Gingrich raised it, according to participants.
Gingrich's public comments have been more measured. In an interview set to air on C-Span today, he said of Starr's office: "They have spent several years building a case and in six or eight weeks they're going to report. If they report trivia, we shouldn't have hearings. If they report substance, we don't have any choice except to have hearings."
Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin emphasized in an interview yesterday that the speaker's comments were not based on any inside information. "The speaker has had no contact with Ken Starr, nor has his staff," she said. "It's simply a calculation based on the fact that the Arkansas grand jury will soon be coming to a close."
Starr has vowed to press forward aggressively regardless of the dismissed Jones lawsuit. Yesterday, the independent counsel's probe of former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and related matters showed no signs of slowing.
Starr's investigators interviewed Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, at an undisclosed location away from the courthouse, legal sources said. Lewis was brought before the grand jury twice last month. After she collapsed on the second day from what her lawyer described as emotional distress, she unsuccessfully sought approval from the chief judge to be excused from further testimony.
Starr's office has been criticized by some as heavy-handed for forcing Lewis to testify against her own daughter. The decision to interview her more informally appears intended to blunt that criticism.
Next week, the grand jury is expected to hear testimony about Kathleen E. Willey, the former White House aide who said Clinton kissed and groped her near the Oval Office. One of Willey's friends from her White House days, Harolyn Cardozo, has been subpoenaed to appear Tuesday, said a source with knowledge of the investigation. Willey called Cardozo from her car phone the night of the alleged incident with Clinton, but Cardozo has refused to discuss publicly what Willey told her that evening.
Cardozo is the wife of Michael Cardozo, trustee of the Clintons' first legal defense fund, and the daughter of Nathan Landow, a wealthy Democratic Party fund-raiser. Willey told the Jones lawyers that Landow discussed with her her Jones case deposition; Starr is trying to learn if Landow tried to get her to lie about her encounter with Clinton. Landow has denied this.
Though Gingrich has carefully refrained from publicly assessing the substance of Starr's work, he has continued to take the lead in orchestrating a potential response to any referral from the independent counsel. In recent weeks, Gingrich has consulted with Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) on how to best prepare for any possible impeachment proceedings. GOP leaders have discussed creating a special panel of lawmakers to initially review a report from Starr, though Hyde and other Judiciary Committee members have resisted such an idea.
In a letter released yesterday, 16 Republican members of the committee asked Gingrich to reject the idea of a select committee, noting that the only two impeachment inquiries ever considered by the House -- against Presidents Andrew Johnson and Richard M. Nixon -- were referred to Judiciary.
"To abruptly break with that precedent sends the wrong message to the American people," said the letter. "Such a move could easily be misinterpreted as partisan maneuvering."
"It would be preferable to do this in the Judiciary Committee, which is where there the public expects it to be historically," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a senior member on the panel.
McCollum, who noted that the chairman recently began hiring investigative staff who could be called upon to survey the independent counsel's work, said the speaker had been listening closely to Hyde's input on the matter.
"It's not a decision by fiat," he said. "They're really talking it over. Nobody's ordering anybody to do anything."
According to Republicans familiar with the issue, the special committee is still "very much up in the air."
"There will be no final procedural decision made unless or until there is a referral from Judge Starr," Martin said.
Until then, Republicans appear committed to developing procedural options. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), who has been charged by the speaker with reviewing past investigations of the executive branch, has begun interviewing current and former politicians and staff.
"I'm talking to these various legislators and staffers on a bipartisan basis to get a sense from them procedurally what worked and what didn't," he said, adding that he would put the interviews on hold during the three-week recess.
Rogan, a former judge, said that while a Gingrich aide had asked to discuss the review this past week, he insisted on waiting until it was finished. "I want to get my project done and then I'll give it to Gingrich," he said.
Regardless of the timing of Starr's report, Republican lawmakers contended that the dismissal of the Jones case would have no bearing on any hypothetical impeachment inquiry.
"The Jones case has nothing to do with the criminal investigation by Mr. Starr," said Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "We await his findings on whether perjury and obstruction of justice were committed either by the president or his supporters."
"That's the bottom line," said another Republican knowledgeable about potential impeachment preparations. "That's what's going to make or break these investigations."
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), who has already called for an impeachment inquiry, said he was confident Starr's team "will send us something of a substantive nature. It would not be news clippings and weather reports."
But the Jones dismissal had also done nothing to diminish the GOP's ongoing anxiety about the political uncertainty of having to face an impeachment inquiry. "I don't even like to use that word," said a senior Republican leader. "It's way too early, and it excites our base" of hard-line conservatives. This lawmaker said that in addition to the prospect of a backlash by more independent-minded voters, he worried about the GOP's own supporters turning on them if they were not able to drive Clinton from office.
Staff writer Susan Schmidt contributed to this story.
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