Republicans Wary of Plan for Starr Panel
By Guy Gugliotta
Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) issued a carefully worded statement to assure members that no action would be taken "until and unless" Starr formally submits information to the House. But a high-ranking leadership source said that many options were under consideration. These included not only appointing a special committee to conduct a preliminary review of the evidence, but also the possibility that such a panel might actually conduct an impeachment inquiry, a prerogative traditionally left to the Judiciary Committee.
Judiciary members expressed dismay at what senior committee Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) described as measures that "might thwart the mechanisms of tradition," but several cautiously endorsed the idea of a special panel to "pre-screen" Starr's evidence.
The maneuvering reflected the unease of Republican leaders about how to deal with the political anomaly that is the Starr investigation. Sources familiar with the leadership's discussions said that without a national anti-Clinton groundswell, the Republicans feel they have no good options.
The sources pointed out that if the GOP leadership does not find the evidence compelling, it has no obligation to accept it, and the case could end there. If it finds the evidence strong enough to "cause concern" but not merit impeachment, one source said, the leadership could simply decide to publish it, or vote some kind of censure against Clinton, an idea first advanced by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
But each outcome is likely to enrage someone Republican conservatives furious because the House is "copping out," said one source, Democrats furious at a GOP "witch hunt," or voters furious at the hounding of a popular president.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said the special committee could be an "exit strategy."
"There is no chance of taking any action against President Clinton," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Gingrich, "a strategic thinker" with presidential ambitions, understands that "the politician who exculpates President Clinton is going to have a problem with the right wing."
The Republicans' disarray was viewed favorably by the White House yesterday. Aides have said for weeks that they plan to attack any congressional impeachment proceedings as a partisan affair, and the outlines of that strategy were already visible yesterday in the reaction to the Gingrich-Hyde agreement.
"Well, 'it's premature' would be a gentle way of expressing some mystification of why they would leap to that process," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "There's so much work for this Congress to be doing at this point that one wonders why they don't set up a committee to convene immediate discussions about the president's child care initiative, why they aren't taking seriously the efforts to deal with classroom size, investments in higher education."
Privately, some Clinton advisers said they were pleased by reports of a possible preview of Starr's evidence. The prosecutor, Clinton aides believe, is already seen by the public as a partisan figure. Any signs of cooperation between Starr and Republicans, they said, will help support Clinton's eventual argument that both are collaborating in his destruction.
But the White House's continued success at deflecting the sex-and-perjury allegations was also causing growing frustration on the part of some Republicans, who decided to escalate their criticism.
Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), a Judiciary member, noted that Clinton "stands accused of at least two counts of perjury" in his statements regarding relationships with former White House aides Monica S. Lewinsky and Kathleen E. Willey. "These are felonies," Inglis added, and, if proven, "they are impeachable offenses in my mind." And House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), in remarks delivered on the House floor, said the "faith the people have put in President Clinton has been violated time and time again" and called on Clinton to tell his story. "I cannot think of a better way to bring on formal congressional proceedings," DeLay said, "than to go on hindering, obstructing and belittling the judicial proceedings now underway."
John P. Feehery, DeLay's communications director, said the majority whip's plans to sharply attack Clinton were cleared with the communications offices of other members of the House leadership.
Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who is considering a presidential bid in 2000, described Clinton as a sexual "predator." He said he found Willey's description of Clinton's attempt to fondle and grope her in a private hallway adjoining the Oval Office as "credible to me," and contended that "We are now not just dealing on the basis of rumors and suspected leaks. We have sworn affidavits from a variety of settings."
Rhetoric aside, the difficulty for the House, several members said, is how to go about initiating a formal proceeding when no mechanism exists for receiving evidence from an independent counsel.
"We're really charting new territory, and we want to hit the ground running," said Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), a Judiciary Committee member who has called for Clinton's impeachment. He said he was "delighted" the House was "discussing" the matter.
Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), a Judiciary member, explained that the "special committee" proposal arose because Starr holds grand jury transcripts and other confidential files that would become available to every member of Congress if they were sent to Capitol Hill.
"You get a small group together to review the material he's not submitting and evaluate it" to see whether it should be sent to Congress, McCollum said. "On its face, it seems like a good idea, but of course, the devil is in the details."
Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), a Judiciary member, also supported some sort of pre-screening, but insisted that "any kind of investigation should be conducted by the Judiciary Committee."
Every Republican interviewed insisted that Democrats would have to participate at all stages of any impeachment activity or examination of evidence. Conyers said Hyde had told him about his conversations with Gingrich, but Democrats had not been asked for their ideas for handling a possible inquiry.
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall, John F. Harris and George Lardner Jr. contributed to this report.
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