By Juliet Eilperin and Michael Grunwald
Hyde has vowed to complete the inquiry by the end of the year, and he said in an interview that his committee may not be able to meet that deadline unless its scope is limited to the strongest allegations against the president arising from the Monica S. Lewinsky matter.
David P. Schippers, the Judiciary chief investigative counsel, recommended last Monday that the committee investigate 15 specific counts of alleged lying under oath, obstructing justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. But Hyde, according to informed sources, may consider streamlining those into as few as two counts: one charging that Clinton repeatedly lied under oath, the other alleging that he tried to obstruct justice. The sources said the broader charge of conspiracy may be impossible to nail down by the Dec. 31 deadline and suggested that the inquiry's primary focus will be the alleged pattern of presidential lies.
"I frankly don't see how we can deal with all 15 charges adequately," Hyde said. "We need to think about narrowing the charges down to the ones that are most provable."
Last night, Hyde called back to clarify his remarks, emphasizing that he has made no decisions to drop any charges against Clinton. He repeated that the committee is trying to conduct its investigation under intense time pressure but warned that his self-imposed deadline could change if the White House or other Democrats fail to cooperate, or if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr refers any more allegations of possible impeachable offenses to the House.
Hyde also said he does not expect to expand the inquiry to include the Whitewater land deal, the mishandling of FBI files, campaign finance abuses or any other allegations unrelated to the Lewinsky affair. However, sources said that if Starr sends a report alleging that Clinton made unwanted sexual advances toward Democratic volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and then lied to try to cover them up, the committee is likely to use the allegations to try to establish a pattern of Clinton's misbehavior.
"There is a limited amount of time, and we can't spend all the time we would like on all of the charges," Hyde said. "There may be some consolidation of these counts to accommodate the time constraints. But we aren't there yet."
Just nine days ago, Schippers detailed 15 charges against the president in a presentation to the committee, which then voted along party lines to open the impeachment probe. Schippers's charges were primarily a repackaging of the 11 impeachable offenses alleged in Starr's report to Congress, but they did not include Starr's allegation of abuse of power, with its echoes of Watergate-style abuses.
Yesterday, Democrats hailed Hyde's suggestion that he may limit the inquiry further. "It's a stunning repudiation by Chairman Hyde of both Mr. Starr and Mr. Schippers, and a commendably honest admission of the insubstantiality of much of the Republican case," said Jim Jordan, spokesman for the committee's Democrats.
However, one GOP source noted that during the Watergate scandal, the Judiciary Committee rejected all but the most damning accusations against President Richard M. Nixon, approving only three articles of impeachment. Hyde is similarly anxious to avoid overreaching in the Lewinsky case and to present the issues to the House as simply as possible, the source said.
"No doubt about it: the lies are the heart of the case," the source said. "Over the next few weeks, we're going to try to narrow the focus. . . . You look at these charges, and they're mostly about lying, lying, lying, lying."
A few Republicans on the Judiciary panel have said publicly that they consider perjury an impeachable offense, and most of the other Republicans on the committee privately share that view. Even Hyde has hinted publicly that the committee must decide whether "some people can lie under oath and others cannot." He also noted archly yesterday that the recent move by Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett to withdraw a Lewinsky affidavit he had filed during the Paula Jones case after Clinton insisted it was true "certainly caught my attention."
However, Democrats pointed out that several prominent Republicans have said publicly that lying about an extramarital affair, even under oath, would not be a serious enough offense to warrant impeachment. And while even most Democrats concede there is strong evidence that Clinton did lie to Starr's grand jury and in his deposition for the Jones case, some of them believe an inquiry narrowly focused on false statements could be a political disaster for Republicans, by requiring them to focus on salacious details about where and how Clinton touched Lewinsky.
"It's a big risk for them," one Democratic committee source said.
The Judiciary panel is not expected to reconvene until after the November elections, but Hyde hopes to hold a vote on articles of impeachment by mid-December, sources said. In the meantime, the committee's investigators will focus on identifying Clinton's alleged lies under oath as he tried to conceal his relationship with Lewinsky, the sources said. They argued that presidential lying should indeed qualify as one of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" considered grounds for impeachment by the framers of the Constitution.
"It would be hard for us to conclude that perjury occurred and not consider it an impeachable offense, but we want to see it in context," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a committee member.
Schippers recommended that the committee investigate six allegations of false testimony by Clinton. He also included three charges that Clinton may have obstructed justice by helping to conceal gifts he gave Lewinsky, by agreeing with Lewinsky on cover stories to hide their affair and by helping her get a job when she could have been a witness against him. There were also two charges alleging that Clinton tampered with witnesses by trying to influence the testimony of his secretary, Betty Currie, and by lying to aides who later testified before the grand jury.
Schippers also included two counts alleging that Clinton "aided, abetted, counseled and procured" Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Jones case, one count that he conspired with Lewinsky and others to obstruct justice in that case, and one count that he engaged in "misprision" of Lewinsky's felonies by failing to report them to authorities.
Yesterday, Hyde said that with less than three months left until his deadline, he wants to focus on the charges "that look the most profitable, I should say productive, for an impeachment inquiry."
But one GOP source warned that the deadline is not set in stone. "If we're going to meet the time line, the only way to do it is to narrow the scope," the source said. "But if the White House is uncooperative, and they've had a history of stonewalling on these things, forget about the Dec. 31 deadline."
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