In the House, a Reinforcement of Views
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A01
Rep. Christopher B. Cannon (R-Utah) heard "some pretty bizarre things" spoken "in a pretty reasonable voice." Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.), who braced for the worst, thought it might have been "a wash."
But these and other members of the House Judiciary Committee agreed that while the release of President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony yesterday did not decide the case against him, it made a formal impeachment inquiry increasingly more probable.
"The next big question is to justify whether there is enough evidence to make an inquiry," said senior committee member Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). "I haven't made a final judgment, but there's a lot pointing in that direction."
The 37 members of the Judiciary Committee are reviewing the independent counsel's report on Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. They had refused to discuss the videotape and the accompanying evidence until their formal release.
In general, committee members regarded the new material as a reinforcement for their previously held views. Republicans focused on whether Clinton committed perjury in his grand jury testimony. Democrats attacked the GOP for deliberately trying to embarrass Clinton and railroad him out of office.
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of Clinton's most ferocious critics, said that the videotaped grand jury testimony "to me presents a very strong case for obstruction of justice and perjury."
"For example," Barr said, "the president continually refers to this piece of paper, his so-called statement, instead of answering directly. Every time he does that it would be a separate count of obstruction of justice because he's impeding the work of the grand jury. He definitely knows exactly what happened. He not only fails to answer without justification, he refers to a document that misleads the grand jury and that impedes their work."
But Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.) said that the videotape "is not the point." He described the committee's handling of the investigation as "a blatantly political process, and there is nobody stepping forward on the other side to say that our responsibilities are more important than the political agenda. There is a rush to have the press and the public try the president."
Despite predictable responses to the videotape, several committee members found a more complicated message. Cannon said reaction among his constituents in Utah was "interesting and relatively mixed." Those who watched the videotape "felt some sympathy" for Clinton, he said, but "are still looking for the truth and wondering where to find it."
And in contrast to pre-videotape efforts to gauge the temper of his district, voters yesterday had relaxed a bit, Cannon added. "I sensed some relief that there was nothing else ugly on the tape. For a lot of people, it wasn't as bad as they thought, and they thought 'Thank God.'‚"
Barrett said parts of Clinton's testimony may help the president hold off an impeachment proceeding, but other parts would hurt him: "In general it may be a wash, and there may be a backlash" against Republicans, he said. "I talked to a number of people who said even prior to the release: 'enough already.' "
Release of the videotape, added Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the committee's top Democrat, shows "an unhealthy preoccupation with . . . unnecessary disclosure of salacious and lurid details of sex" and cautioned that "if we are not very careful, this inquiry itself may soon become more unpopular than the actual conduct of the inquiry."
Barrett said that among his constituents in Milwaukee, "we have people saying they think it helped the president, and other calls saying 'move forward with impeachment.' It's certainly a mixed bag."
Cannon said he was impressed that the videotape showed "the president is an attractive person." But, "he said some pretty bizarre things in a pretty reasonable voice," particularly in his verbal acrobatics describing his sexual encounters with Lewinsky.
For these reasons, Cannon said, the committee needed to continue its labors: "I've said we either have to vindicate him or remove him from office," Cannon said. "We need to decide whether to open a formal inquiry, and the sooner we do it, the better."
Under the House resolution governing the Lewinsky evidence, the committee must complete its review of 18 boxes of material by Sept. 28. Besides the videotape, the committee yesterday released 3,183 pages of appendices to accompany the main 453-page report.
Unless it decides to the contrary, the remaining 17 boxes of material will automatically be published Sept. 28. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) said that there was no formal committee meeting scheduled this week and suggested that there might be none.
"It's premature for any of us to make a judgment" about whether the committee will open a formal impeachment inquiry, he added. He said the panel likely will hold "preliminary inquiries" early in October to determine what to do next.
At that point, several members said, the panel will have to come together to examine the evidence to determine what constitutes an "impeachable offense" and to decide whether to proceed further.
Refusal by the Republicans to deal with this question prior to releasing the videotape and the appendices prompted Democrats to cry foul last week and condemn the panel's procedures as GOP strong-arming: "We have the cart way out in front of the horse," Watt said.
But now, said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), it is time to take stock: "After watching most of the videotape, it leaves more things to be done," Graham said. "To bring this thing to closure, you're going to have to tie up some loose ends.
"My bottom line is that we are not going to have an inquiry based on an inappropriate sexual relationship by the president. That would never result in impeachment, and it's a waste of our time.
"But if there was an ongoing pattern of activity to deliberately orchestrate the testimony of other witnesses, manipulate the stream of evidence, or mislead or lie to a grand jury," Graham continued, "that would be very serious."
In making this determination, Republicans agreed that the videotape will be crucial because it points to the most serious allegation against Clinton: that he lied before a grand jury in discussing the sexual nature of his relationship with Lewinsky.
Canady found "irreconcilable differences" between the accounts of Clinton and Lewinsky. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) described Clinton's testimony as "frustratingly evasive," but he argued that it is primarily the 10 minutes of discussion on the question of Clinton's definition of "sexual relations" that will become the deciding factor in any impeachment inquiry.
Now that the committee is focused on the discrepancies between these different testimonies, Republicans said, the panel is likely to recommend a formal impeachment inquiry. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) noted that of the 3,000 calls, faxes and e-mails his office received over the course of a week, 93 percent of his constituents suggested Clinton either resign or be impeached.
But Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) cautioned against a rush to judgment: "We have not established that any of these allegations are impeachable offenses, even if true, and here we are releasing this grand jury testimony, publishing material and ruining people's lives."
Staff writer Edward Walsh contributed to this report.
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