By Guy Gugliotta
The House leadership has quietly begun to consider the logistics of a possible impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, but both parties agree the evidence will have to be much stronger than it is today before lawmakers can seriously contemplate removing a popular chief executive from office.
House members question whether independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, as required by law, can gather enough "substantial and credible information" about Clinton transgressions to send it to the House as "grounds for impeachment."
And even if the information exists, House members from both parties wonder if any misdeeds involved in an alleged affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky would rise to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors" stipulated by the Constitution as impeachable offenses.
And finally, say House lawmakers and aides, an inquiry of impeachment will likely depend as much on the tide of public opinion as it will on the case against Clinton. "Go ahead, make my day," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, where any impeachment inquiry would begin.
"A foolhardy attempt to impeach an overwhelmingly popular and successful president on inconsistent and highly suspect circumstantial evidence is one way to ensure a Democratic congressional majority next November," Conyers said.
Indeed, surveys continue to demonstrate unprecedented levels of popularity for Clinton since the scandal broke. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll last weekend showed him with a towering 79 percent approval rating. More typical was the latest Newsweek poll, which found a 66 percent approval, with 49 percent saying the president shouldn't be impeached even if he told Lewinsky to lie about the alleged affair.
Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.) called this phenomenon "one of these peculiar things in politics." Frost, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, also said the scandal has not affected the party's efforts to recruit candidates and raise money for the 1998 elections.
Some lawmakers noted that Clinton's popularity contrasts markedly with the circumstances that existed when the Judiciary Committee opened an impeachment inquiry against President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, the last time the procedure was used. At that time, the Watergate scandal had resulted in the indictment of 19 people, among them two Nixon Cabinet secretaries and many of his closest advisers. Nixon himself had been named an "unindicted co-conspirator" by a special prosecutor for his role in the Watergate cover-up. His approval rating fell to 24 percent in August 1974.
"One of the controlling factors is if there is an atmosphere [to] consider removal," said former representative M. Caldwell Butler (R-Va.), who served on the Judiciary Committee in 1974. "Today, that's just not the circumstance. Until the American people get stirred up like they were in 1974, there should be no discussion of impeachment."
Starr has made clear that should he come across evidence of impeachable offenses, he will turn it over to the House. There Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) will consult with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other Republican leaders before deciding to open an inquiry.
If a majority of the Judiciary Committee votes articles of impeachment, the full House then acts as a grand jury and, by a simple majority vote, could pass the case to the Senate for trial. It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to remove the president from office. Nixon resigned in 1974 before his case left the House.
Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), one of Clinton's most outspoken detractors, had introduced an impeachment resolution before the current controversy, but it languishes in the House Rules Committee, awaiting a leadership decision that is not likely any time soon.
Hyde's office said he had quietly discussed financing an impeachment inquiry last week with Gingrich, and Hyde told reporters "we would have to augment our [committee] staff considerably."
But even as they make these preliminary preparations, however, Republicans appear to have raised the threshold for an inquiry. Last week Gingrich told a closed meeting of Republicans that he would demand that Starr turn over all the evidence he had gathered in more than three years of investigating the Clinton administration before the House would contemplate an impeachment inquiry.
People familiar with Gingrich's thinking acknowledged that his remark was intended to suggest to Starr that his evidence needed to be overwhelming enough to warrant the abandonment of a probe that has involved everything from Arkansas financial scandals to the White House travel office.
Democrats, meanwhile, suggest that Starr's evidence is so weak that he wants to "punt to Congress" rather than admit he has no case. "Starr dumps it on the committee, then says Hyde and Gingrich didn't have the guts to go ahead with it," said one Democratic source.
This, Republicans say, isn't going to happen. "If this boils down to a 'he said, she said,' problem, Henry Hyde is not likely to take it," one Republican said. "It's his job to determine what laws were broken and whether they meet the threshold of impeachable offenses."
Both the House Republicans and Democrats are holding annual retreats early this week, and Democrats in particular appeared anxious to put to rest any hasty rush to impeachment. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said any move by the Judiciary Committee "would stop everything in its tracks."
"Up to this point, he [Hyde] has been one to withhold judgment, and properly so," said Rep. Ken Bentsen (D-Tex.). "The Republican pot is boiling and some of their members are eager to exploit these allegations."
But not Hyde. He said he wanted "precise evidence" of a "substantial nature," and unlike Gingrich was not interested in obtaining three years of Starr investigation documents. "One of the best ways to hide things" is to send too much, he said.
Hyde and other Republicans said that for any inquiry to have credibility, they would need to consult with Democrats before taking any action. Perhaps confirming the preliminary state of things, Conyers said Hyde had not called. The Judiciary Committee has 19 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
But to establish credibility, said Butler, the committee needed allegations that were serious enough to break through the partisan noise. "It was gloomy, and given the choice, I don't think I'd do it again," Butler said of the 1974 inquiry. "It was pretty hard on Republicans, but as we went on, the evidence became pretty clear-cut. That's the acid test."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
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