By Juliet Eilperin
The unusual criticism of the president from the House chamber came as part of a series of escalating attacks over the past two days, encompassing Clinton scandals ranging from campaign finance to elements of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of Whitewater.
"The American people have the right to expect that the rule of law will prevail, that no one is above the law," Gingrich said on the floor.
In venues ranging from his filing for reelection at the Georgia state Capitol to a speech before his former political committee GOPAC, the speaker asserted that Americans will respond to the message that the White House must tell the truth. He encouraged fellow Republican leaders to hammer on this theme.
"We have never seen the level of complex, interlocking lawbreaking that we have stumbled upon the more we look into it," he elaborated to reporters on Capitol Hill.
According to sources close to Gingrich, he decided this weekend to launch a public offensive against Clinton after Democrats unanimously rejected granting immunity to four witnesses before the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Though Democrats said their vote signaled a protest against how Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) had handled the investigation, Republicans argue that the Justice Department had already approved giving immunity to the four witnesses.
The fight over immunity is ultimately a procedural question -- Gingrich indicated that if the Democrats block the vote again next week he will transfer the matter to the House Oversight Committee, where Republicans hold a 2 to 1 majority -- but it underscores Republicans' growing sense of frustration with the White House.
As GOP leaders await the arrival of a report from Starr, the issue of how the administration responds to congressional investigators will have broad implications.
Gingrich told reporters he feared the Democrats' tactics could spill over to the House Judiciary Committee if that panel is called upon to investigate the president.
"It sets a very bad precedent for the Judiciary Committee," the speaker said.
In his GOPAC speech, Gingrich berated the president for allowing his staff to attack Starr. "If he doesn't want to fire Ken Starr, he should tell his staff to shut up," Gingrich said. "I am sickened by how unpatriotically they undermine the Constitution of the United States on behalf of their client."
Though Gingrich focused most of his ire on the campaign finance scandal, he also tied other potential White House scandals to what he said was a broad pattern of obstruction of justice. For instance, he seemed to say that Clinton confidant and former top Justice Department official Webster L. Hubbell had accepted illegal funds. Hubbell accepted money from some of Clinton's backers after he pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges -- a circumstance being investigated by Starr.
"There is no question there are very, very serious allegations, starting with $700,000 being paid to Hubbell, who is a convicted felon," Gingrich said in a Monday speech before the Atlanta Rotary Club. "I think any honest American can conclude [that giving] $700,000 to a convicted felon is hush money. That is a very, very serious violation."
After questioning Clinton's use of executive privilege as well, Gingrich then delivered a similarly harsh address before his former political committee, GOPAC. "What you have lived through for 2 1/2 years is the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice, coverup and effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history, and the time has come to say to the president, 'Quit undermining the law in the United States. Turn over the evidence,' " he said.
In a closed-door meeting with the GOP leadership yesterday afternoon, Gingrich emphasized that Republicans can afford to repeat this law-and-order theme "cheerfully and honestly," according to one Republican leader who asked not to be identified.
Despite the speaker's repeated blasts, Clinton brushed off Gingrich's remarks when asked about them yesterday at a Rose Garden appearance. "He said a lot of things last night that I don't think it would serve any useful purpose for me to respond to," Clinton said. "There is enough negative political talk in Washington every single day without the president adding to it."
A short time earlier, White House press secretary Michael McCurry was less reticent. He noted that Gingrich was speaking to a group that has received funding from Pittsburgh billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who has helped fund anti-Clinton investigations in Arkansas. Calling Gingrich's comments a "rank political attack," McCurry said, "it's real simple what was going on last night. He was signaling to you that they intend to try to keep alive the swirl of allegations by way of doing political damage to the president."
The highly charged exchange among Gingrich, Burton and Government Reform ranking member Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) on the floor yesterday morning highlighted the bitterness harbored by both sides. While Gingrich and Burton railed against the Clinton administration's obstructionism, Waxman argued that Burton's panel had committed a series of blunders in its efforts to target the president.
"From the very beginning, the chairman has operated in the most partisan of ways," Waxman said, adding that the vast majority of subpoenas issued by the committee have been directed at Democrats. "It's a government-funded Republican campaign to smear Democrats."
But Gingrich argued that Democrats had been partisan, failing to live up to the legacy that lawmakers such as then-Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) established during the Watergate investigation.
"Howard Baker understood that Richard Nixon could not be allowed to take the entire Republican Party and the Constitution down in flames and that his job as a United States senator was to get at the truth, and Howard Baker again and again and again cooperated with the Democrat Chairman Sam Ervin," Gingrich said, adding that Democrats "ought to be ashamed" at their actions and "ought to be helping us get at the truth rather than finding some flimsy excuse to avoid voting for immunity."
Alluding to Burton's recent comments disparaging Clinton in an Indianapolis newspaper, Waxman responded, "Sam Ervin didn't call the president a scumbag."
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