By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
The House yesterday briefly put aside its partisan divisions and approved the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report and gave the Judiciary Committee until Sept. 28 to review more than 2,000 pages of additional material.
Many members immediately left town, even before receiving the report, but by the end of the day, as news organizations began divulging sordid details of the report, the widespread relief at having released the document so quickly was replaced, in some cases, by embarrassment and, at least among many Democrats, anguished outrage.
"If these details become the only details, if ministers are talking about this on Sunday, many Americans by Monday will not be able to hear the president when he is ready to respond," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
That was in sharp contrast to the lofty rhetoric that preceded the House vote.
"Let us conduct ourselves and this inquiry in such a way as to vindicate the rule of law. Let us conduct ourselves and this inquiry in such a way as to vindicate the Constitution," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) during the two-hour floor debate.
"This is a sacred process," Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) told his colleagues in an impassioned speech. "It goes to the heart of our democracy. This is not a second election. This is not politics. This is not spinning. This is not polling. This is not a lynch mob. This is not a witch hunt."
For much of the day, however, Republicans and Democrats complained about each others' conduct and expressed misgivings about the future.
Democrats denounced Republicans for refusing to give Clinton one or two days to examine the report before publishing it. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said lawmakers were in such a hurry to "drink mint juleps at 5 o'clock" they were not giving Clinton a decent chance of defending himself. "We are going to find the rope and find the tree and ask the questions later," he said.
After the debate, a still-smarting Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) dismissed McDermott's remarks as "the height of hypocrisy." The GOP believes McDermott leaked an illegally taped phone call to reporters covering an ethics case against Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last year.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, noted that Gingrich had had a week to examine the ethics committee's report on his own transgressions: "Why would you not afford the president of the United States the same opportunity the ethics committee afforded you?" she asked Gingrich, sitting above her in the speaker's chair.
"Behave yourselves," admonished House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), who controlled the debate.
Hyde said after the vote he felt a "little bit" saddened by the partisan tone of the floor debate, but dismissed the Democratic complaints about the issuance of the report to Clinton as rhetorical window-dressing: "I had the impression they were looking for a grievance and found one."
And despite his decision to oppose the resolution on the floor, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the Judiciary Committee's ranking minority member, nodded solemnly from the first row of seats as Hyde closed the debate promising "fairness will be observed."
Still, it was clear both during the debate and afterward that Republicans and Democrats were almost viscerally divided in their opinions of Starr's handling of the investigation.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who voted against the report, bitterly denounced Starr for repeatedly changing direction in his investigation, until "aha, here's a titillating sex scandal it's a theater of the absurd."
But Hyde in his floor remarks echoed a sentiment shared by many Republicans when he noted that Starr had been victimized repeatedly by the White House's "talented issuers of insults" without a chance to answer back.
Some Democrats who shied away from attacking the GOP said they still feared the public release of the document would jeopardize their deliberations. Judiciary Committee member Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) said the public exposure would make it nearly impossible for the committee to do its work without facing scrutiny from the press and public.
"I just don't see how we're going to be able to overcome that second guessing," Watt said. "I just think fundamentally we have created a situation where we cannot conduct a fair process in this House."
And a few hours later, committee colleagues from both parties had to deal with their own reactions to the report. Senior committee member Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) confessed discomfort with it, but said "Even if it's salacious and embarrassing, it may not be enough to impeach. We have to have the mettle to say no."
Rep. Lindsey Graham,
Judiciary Committee member
the details of Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky "were made relevant by the line of defense the president has taken. In order to determine whether perjury took place, those details have some probative force." Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), another committee member, said he was "personally offended and deeply saddened by much of the conduct that is described in the report, but it is imperative for members of the Judiciary Committee not to reach a conclusion as to whether an impeachment inquiry is justified until having made a thorough review of all evidence."
And in the end, said Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the lurid details would be the ultimate proof of the committee's performance: "It's going to test our mettle to uphold the law," Graham said. "Even if it's salacious and embarrassing, it may not be enough to impeach. We have to have the mettle to say no."
At 12:04 p.m., less than two minutes after the gavel sounded ending the vote to release the documents, Clerk of the House Robin H. Carle took possession of the Starr report in the Cannon House Office Building's Legislative Service Center, a basement office crouched next to the labyrinthine tunnels that fan out beneath the Capitol.
Capitol Police officers W. J. Vernon and J.R. Moore carried two boxes into an inner room where House Sergeant at Arms Wilson Livingood cut the plastic tape sealing the first box, took out a large, black binder and handed it to Carle, then reached into a second box and took out a second binder.
Then Livingood resealed both boxes and sent them back to a secure room of the Gerald R. Ford House Office Building, where they will join more than 2,000 more pages of appendixes and supplementary material for the Judiciary Committee to review over the next two weeks.
As the House closed down for the weekend, members and staff waited for copies and scanned the interoffice Web site for the electronic presentation that Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) had promised them.
At the Judiciary Committee's offices, Hyde caucused with the committee's 21 Republicans, briefing them on how they could get into the secure room, while the clerk's Xerox Docutech machine was copying up to 130 pages a minute in the bowels of the Cannon Building.
At 1:30 p.m. a black-sweatered woman from the clerk's office, trailed by photographers and cameras recording the event so, as Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) put it, the public "could follow the process," arrived at the Judiciary Committee's hearing room with one copy of the Starr report in a big manila envelope.
Another clerk was making a similar delivery to Conyers at the Democratic committee offices down the hall.
Hyde came into the hearing room, and below a giant portrait of former representative Peter Rodino (D-N.J.), who presided over the Nixon impeachment hearings 24 years ago, signed for his copy of the report.
"This is a very sober moment," Hyde said. "We are at the beginning of a long climb up a steep mountain. Nobody looks forward to it."
Staff writer Barbara Vobejda and staff researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
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