Democrats voiced agreement yesterday with the suggestion of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) that it might not be "a smart idea" to rush into any impeachment inquiry against President Clinton.
"It shows the Republicans understand while they have a right wing that wants the president impeached, the country as a whole doesn't," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
White House press secretary Michael McCurry told reporters at Martha's Vineyard yesterday: "I think the speaker was indicating how seriously he would take that type of report . . . and that's very proper."
Gingrich, in an interview published yesterday in The Washington Post, said of the possibility of hearings: "I'm not at all sure that you can get to that this year, and I'm not at all sure that it's a smart idea to try to get to that this year."
He also said that impeachment hearings might not occur at all unless Starr submits evidence that Clinton committed crimes beyond any related to former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. "I don't think the Congress could move forward only on Lewinsky, unless he [Starr] had such a clear case, such an overpowering case," Gingrich said.
But Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), member of the House Judiciary Committee, said evidence of any instance in which the president obstructed justice, lied or asked someone else to lie under oath as has been alleged in the Lewinsky matter would warrant an impeachment inquiry. "I beg to differ with the speaker," McCollum said, "If in fact what he's saying is we've got to have more than perjury [to launch an impeachment inquiry], I believe having the president lying under oath is something he should be impeached for."
Gingrich seemed to soften his earlier comments in a statement issued yesterday. "The speaker, while withholding any conclusions on the specific allegations against the president, made the obvious statement of fact that a pattern of criminal behavior is worse than a single incident," said spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "Any evidence of presidential illegalities, however, whether one incident or many, would clearly have to be investigated and addressed by Congress in a very serious manner."
One Judiciary Committee Democrat said Gingrich was responding to public sentiment. "He's reading polls that say the American people will not tolerate impeachment proceedings against President Clinton if all there is is Monica Lewinsky," said Rep. Robert Wexler (Fla.).
Lawmakers and aides close to Gingrich and the committee agreed that the election-year calendar with lawmakers eager to go home to campaign would be a problem.
"Impossible," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), who was a member of the Judiciary Committee during its most recent impeachment hearings, which resulted in then-judge Alcee Hastings being removed from the bench. Hastings was later reinstated. "The first six or eight months that followed the receipt of the report was devoted to analyzing it, segmenting it, investigating it," said Gekas. "And that was just for a judge. Imagine what it would be like if a president was involved."
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