With House in Turmoil, Critics Target Hyde
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A1
With the House GOP leadership a shambles and incoming House Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) letting it be known that impeachment is something he wants resolved before his watch begins, it has been House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde who has presented the most visible target for critics who believe President Clinton's transgressions should not force him from office.
Many committee Democrats who are fond of the 74-year-old chairman with the flowing white hair are convinced the Illinois Republican has had to succumb to intense pressure from House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other conservatives in his party. "He was given the assignment of taking this impeachment and marching it home," said Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), a senior committee Democrat. "The problem is he's borne the brunt of the right wing's refusal to accept reality."
Yet interviews with committee Republicans, aides and others suggest a different picture: a chairman who not only is comfortable with the direction of the impeachment proceedings but who is calling the shots. While he listens to the advice and suggestions of more junior Republicans on the panel, Hyde formulates strategy in close consultation with a few senior staff members.
"It's very much like being in a law firm," Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said of Hyde's decision-making process within the committee. "The staff makes recommendations to the chairman. The chairman sits down with us. We all have our say, but he's the senior partner."
"Hyde is a pretty tough-minded guy," said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah). "Gracious but tough-minded. I think he's always been in control of the proceedings."
Throughout the past few months, Hyde has regularly briefed Judiciary Republicans on how he planned to proceed. Occasionally he laid out several options at once, lawmakers said, but more frequently he has described a proposal and then made slight modifications based on members' input.
Some major decisions, however, were steered almost entirely by Hyde and his top staff. The idea of holding a session on the consequences of perjury, for example, was the chairman's, lawmakers said.
"That was Mr. Hyde's hearing," according to one committee member.
While several Republicans were interested in exploring questions surrounding Clinton's role in the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandal, chief counsel David P. Schippers and his investigators pushed to demand sealed documents from the Justice Department on its campaign finance investigation. And Hyde agreed.
"Hank Hyde is his own man," said Chicago lawyer Philip H. Corboy, a lifelong friend of Hyde who recently hosted a dinner for the chairman. "He respects the hierarchy of the Republican Party, but I think he sees his job not as autonomous, but certainly within his control."
Just last summer, that control seemed in doubt. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) suggested impeachment be handled by a select committee, and even after that idea was rejected gave the strong impression that he would be closely involved in the process. Democrats responded by saying he was the real mastermind behind the move to impeach the president.
But after the party lost seats in the November election, Gingrich suddenly vanished from the scene and Livingston showed no interest in filling the expanded role Gingrich was expected to play.
Hyde has proceeded on his own. Unlike some House chairmen, who tend to work closely with a few select lawmakers, he has not called on any specific members of his panel to serve as advisers during the probe.
"He makes each and every member in the room feel like their input is equally valuable," said Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), adding that none of her fellow Republicans has vied for special status in the inquiry.
When committee lawyers asked Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson the week of Thanksgiving to release memos written by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and former Justice campaign task force head Charles G. LaBella, there were no phone calls to discuss the idea. Judiciary Republicans learned of the plan to subpoena the documents when they returned to Washington.
Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), a senior committee member, said that "80 percent of all that has arisen" in the impeachment inquiry has been introduced by Hyde at the beginning of GOP committee meetings before or after hearings.
According to Gekas, the decision to expand the inquiry to include campaign finance matters arose because supplementary material sent "Hyde is a pretty tough-minded guy. Gracious but tough-minded. I think he's always been in control of the proceedings."
Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah)
by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr made reference to Democratic fund-raiser John Huang.
"That's how the staff attorneys and the chairman [Hyde] came to the conclusion that these were matters growing out of the materials we had at hand," Gekas said. "This so-called expanded investigation is not expanded at all; it's part of the massive amount of material sent to us."
Hyde has made some concessions over the months to committee members. After receiving a bipartisan request from Graham, Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) and William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), Hyde joined ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) in asking Starr before the election to reveal any other grounds for impeachment he may have uncovered after sending his original referral to Congress.
Hutchinson also urged Hyde to call Monica S. Lewinsky and Clinton secretary Betty Currie as witnesses in the impeachment probe, but the chairman resisted. For one thing, Bono argued persuasively that the Republicans would look mean-spirited if they subpoenaed Lewinsky, Currie, former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and other women linked to the White House sex scandal and subjected them to embarrassing questions. Inevitably, she said, the focus would shift to sex.
Hyde, a onetime all-star basketball player from suburban Chicago, has built one of the highest profiles in Congress after 24 years as a lawmaker. He has put his mark on almost every aspect of national policy and starred in every role that has come his way, whether as a fervent antiabortion advocate or a defender of the Reagan administration during the Iran-contra affair.
Yet he has shown an independent streak, as when he opposed the GOP leadership's effort to impose term limits on House members, and prides himself on being fair-minded. Which is why the Democratic assaults on his leadership of the historic impeachment proceedings has left him angry.
During Tuesday's nine-hour committee hearing into "the consequences of perjury," for example, the usually amiable Hyde bitterly complained about the Democrats' focus on "process and procedure and personal attacks on the chairman," adding, "All you do is browbeat the chairman and this side of the aisle."
"Henry has a sense of history about himself and he takes it personal when people want to say that he wants some railroad job," said Graham. "I think that really does bother him, that people would accuse him of doing that."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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