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House Group Would
View Starr's Evidence

By David S. Broder and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 19, 1998; Page A01

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) agreed yesterday to send a small group of House members at the appropriate time to examine evidence assembled by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of President Clinton to determine if there is any basis for the committee to consider impeachment charges, according to officials who had been briefed by both men.

No timetable was set, but the officials said they contemplate that the first staff-level contacts with Starr on the status of his four-year investigation will occur in the near future.

Neither Gingrich nor Hyde has met with Starr, and their plans appeared to be proceeding on a separate track from those of the independent counsel. Lawyers in Starr's office are working on a draft report for Congress but have not determined its scope or timing. One source said the Gingrich-Hyde plan would be triggered only after Starr makes a formal referral to Congress as specified in the independent counsel law.

The Gingrich-Hyde agreement came after several days of public sparring over leaks suggesting Gingrich might bypass the Judiciary Committee -- the traditional venue for impeachment -- and appoint a select committee to consider the Clinton matter. Officials said the speaker and the veteran Illinois Republican emerged from a one-on-one meeting "in tandem" on how the first steps toward possible consideration of impeachment charges will proceed.

Their plan envisages appointment of a small group of House members, drawn primarily but perhaps not exclusively from Hyde's committee. The select panel would examine evidence assembled by Starr's probe of financial transactions by Clinton and his wife, primarily during the 1980s, and the more recent allegations of Clinton's lying about his relations with a number of women and trying to obstruct justice related to their testimony.

Hyde, who bridled at earlier suggestions that Gingrich might preempt his committee, told the speaker he would be willing to accept some members from outside the committee if their participation would assure broader support in the House for whatever recommendations the smaller group might make, officials said.

Sources said senior members from other committees might carry more weight than some of the junior members of Judiciary less well known to their colleagues and to the public.

Gingrich and Hyde agreed that the panel would be bipartisan, presumably meaning that the Democratic leadership would decide the makeup of the minority side.

Hyde recommended that the group examine Starr's evidence at the office of the independent counsel to avoid being bound by House rules making material in the files of any standing committee available to any member of the House. He said that would give Starr assurance that evidence critical to possible future criminal prosecutions would not become public inadvertently.

Officials said the speaker and Hyde agreed that if the small group decided it had seen evidence sufficient to suggest the possibility of an impeachable offense, it might ask Starr to sum up the case against Clinton and ask the president's attorneys to offer their rebuttal.

Only then, according to the plan, would this group recommend to the Judiciary Committee whether a formal impeachment investigation be launched.

Starr's office already is preparing a report for Congress detailing the evidence of possible perjury and obstruction by Clinton in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. The independent counsel's office has not yet decided whether to supplement that report -- which it hopes to complete within two or three months -- with evidence suggesting there have been patterns of perjury and obstruction in other areas of the Whitewater financial investigation, or to treat Whitewater issues in a separate report.

Starr's office also has been considering timing and procedural issues that could be dramatically affected by the current Gingrich-Hyde scenario.

Prosecutors have been mulling how quickly to dispatch the report -- whether, for example, to send it promptly even if it's not entirely complete, or to wait until testimony from all witnesses before Starr's grand jury is obtained, according to lawyers who have some knowledge of discussions taking place among them.

Lewinsky, whose claims of a sexual relationship with Clinton in tape-recorded conversations with a friend sparked the current phase of the investigation, has not yet testified. For nearly two months, her lawyers have been sparring with prosecutors in an attempt to obtain complete immunity for any testimony. Starr has threatened her with prosecution for perjury related to an affidavit in which she denied any sexual relationship with the president, and the matter still could take many months to resolve.

As Starr's prosecutors begin drafting their report, knowledgeable lawyers said they are concerned that they not look as if they are acting in a political manner -- either by rushing the report or taking so long that its completion coincides with the fall campaign.

Prosecutors also have been considering whether they need any sort of court approval to send to Congress a report that contains grand jury evidence, including tape recordings, depositions and physical evidence. The same concern presumably would arise if members of Congress were to ask to examine such evidence at Starr's office.

Prosecutors also have to decide whether the report would address the still unresolved legal question of whether a sitting president can be indicted on criminal charges.

Both Gingrich and Hyde cautioned associates not to assume that the procedure they have developed implies a belief that Clinton has committed impeachable offenses.

Their agreement also left somewhat vague the timing and mechanism of any possible handoff of responsibility from the small group they envisage sending down to Starr's office to the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee.

Congressional Republicans generally have expressed skepticism, as a matter of political reality, that impeachment would proceed if Clinton continues to enjoy the broad public support almost every poll has recorded since the Lewinsky allegations became public in January.

But additional revelations in depositions taken for the pending civil trial in the separate Paula Jones sexual harassment case against Clinton apparently have convinced House Republican leaders that they may be called upon to consider the first impeachment charges agains a president since the Judiciary Committee sent a three-count bill of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon to the full House in 1974. Nixon resigned before the House could vote to make him stand trial in the Senate on those charges.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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