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Gingrich Raises the Bar for Impeachment

Newt Gingrich
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Post file photo)

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Clinton Defense Takes Shape

Media Notes: Spun to a Crisp

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Congress May Decide It Should Censure Clinton (Washington Post, Aug. 23)

Profiles of the House Judiciary Committee (LEGI-SLATE, Aug. 21)

Report Expected to Focus on Lewinsky (Washington Post, Aug. 12)

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 24, 1998; Page A1

SANTA MARIA, Calif., Aug. 23—House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said today the House likely will seek evidence from all of Kenneth W. Starr's investigations -- not just the results of the inquiry into President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky -- before determining whether to launch an impeachment inquiry.

In his most extensive comments about the investigation since Clinton's speech to the nation last Monday, Gingrich said in an interview here that he believed only "a pattern of felonies" and not "a single human mistake" could constitute grounds for an impeachment inquiry.

"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 I think we would be better served to know the whole story."

He added that the House Judiciary Committee would have "every right" to ask Starr for his findings on Whitewater and other investigations if the upcoming report to Congress is limited to the Lewinsky investigation, as has been reported.

"All the independent counsel does is start the process. He doesn't define it," Gingrich said.

The speaker, who is on a campaign swing for Republican House candidates in western states, held out little prospect that the question of whether to launch an impeachment inquiry against the president could be determined before the November elections, as many Democrats are hoping.

Starr's report is expected to arrive on Capitol Hill sometime next month. Gingrich said the Judiciary Committee, under the chairmanship of Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), must carefully review Starr's findings out of public view before reaching any conclusion about a recommendation for a formal impeachment proceeding.

"I'm not at all sure you can get to that this year," he said, "and I'm not at all sure that it's a smart idea to try to get to that this year."

Gingrich said the House should move cautiously as it makes any decision about an impeachment inquiry because of the turmoil it could cause in the country.

"There's a high value to stability in our system," he said. "I don't like the idea of changing who the president is capriciously. It's very hard to pick a president. It's very expensive. It takes an enormous amount of the nation's energy, and once the nation has made that choice, whoever that choice is, there should be an overwhelming presumption that they serve out their term. The mountain is all on the side of those who say there's a case. It's not just a presumption of innocence, there's a presumption of stability, a presumption of authority, a presumption of the way the nation runs."

Public opinion surveys that show a strong majority of Americans opposed to impeaching the president, even if they believe he lied under oath about his relationship. "It's not that they're tolerant," Gingrich said. "It's that they have a very wise sense that once you start down that road, it's very complex."

But Gingrich said he does not believe what has happened in the Lewinsky case has occurred in a vacuum. "I think the Lewinsky investigation by itself would never have existed . . . if you didn't have 3 1/2 years of prior investigation. Remember it is [Attorney General Janet] Reno who expands Starr's authority. So the question you have to ask is yourself is, what is it that Reno was informed of that convinced her that this was significant? We were told because he was able to show a pattern of five or six examples, that this was five or six."

Gingrich said again that his plan is to turn the Starr report over to Hyde once it is submitted and House rules are changed to protect the secrecy of the evidence. The speaker said he believes the report's executive summary, which he said could be the length of a book, "will probably be available" to the public. But the accompanying evidence, which he said could fill many boxes -- "just an amazing amount of material," he said -- would be kept secret.

Gingrich and Hyde previously asked Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) to examine procedures used by the House Judiciary Committee during its impeachment inquiry of President Richard M. Nixon. On the basis of Rogan's recommendations, guidelines have been developed for the committee's initial handling of Starr's material.

"His [Rogan's] basic report was keep it as low-key and factual as you can and be patient," Gingrich said. "Do as much of it as you can in executive session. The party in the White House has a much easier time dealing with the information and coming to grips with it if they don't have to do it in public."

Gingrich also said he would attempt to create "genuine bipartisanship" at that part of the inquiry. "Get it away from me and get it away from Starr," he said. "Get it to Henry, who is widely accepted as -- even the Democrats have sort of set him up as the perfect person to preside over this. I think Henry will then have to make the decision."

If Hyde's committee recommends that the House conduct an impeachment inquiry, the House would have to determine whether there were grounds to bring articles of impeachment. If articles were brought and the House voted to impeach, the Senate would hold a trial, and the president could be removed from office if two-thirds of the senators present voted to convict.

Gingrich created a furor earlier this year when he began to attack the administration for corruption, but since then he has been more subdued.

"I've tried to make very clear that this is about the rule of law and it's about the law," he said. "It's not about scandals in the gossipy sense or sexual behavior in the gossipy sense. It's about whether or not the law has been violated, and if so, is it a pattern of violation [or] is it a one-time event."

He added that any inquiry should be "as nonpolitical as possible and people then ought to reach a judgment based on the oath that they swear on the opening day to uphold the Constitution."

The speaker said he had spoken at some length with House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who last week called on Clinton to resign.

"I think there's a different standard for resignation and impeachment," he said. He then added, "I think resignation is a standard of honor. Impeachment is a standard of law."

DeLay, he said, felt that because he believed "so passionately" that Clinton should resign that he was obligated as a House leader to speak out. "The fact that DeLay thinks Clinton should resign does not prejudge whether or not DeLay would vote for impeachment," Gingrich said. "It's a different standard. It's a higher standard."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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