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Republican Majority Determined to Impeach

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, November 21, 1998; Page A1

    The Republican majority on the House Judiciary Committee emerged from this week's nationally televised hearing determined to impeach President Clinton for lying under oath, according to several lawmakers, even as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's ethics adviser abruptly resigned to protest his appearance before the panel.

    A day after Starr's marathon testimony, Judiciary Republicans pressed forward with their inquiry by issuing new subpoenas and signaled their resolve to punish the president for his conduct in the Paula Jones case when they vote on articles of impeachment in two weeks. Clinton told a news conference in Seoul he already has punished himself and said he hoped "Congress will do the right thing in a nonpolitical way."

    "I don't think [Starr] moved the American public," said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), a member of the committee, "but the Republicans came out strengthened in their view that the president committed impeachable crimes."

    Yet the momentum among the panel's GOP caucus seemed to defy both public opinion and sentiment among their colleagues outside of the committee. Even before ethics adviser Samuel Dash quit yesterday to chastise Starr for taking sides on impeachment in an "abuse of your office," a growing number of House Republicans were wary of evicting Clinton from office because of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter. Because House Democrats are strongly against impeachment, defections by as few as a dozen Republicans could decide the outcome of a floor vote in Clinton's favor.

    "Since the election, I've talked to at least 100 members. Maybe three or four have brought up the impeachment question and all of them have brought it up in the context of how quickly can we get it over with," said retiring Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a former member of the House leadership. "It's the elephant in the room and everyone's ignoring it."

    To White House allies, the prospect of a party-line committee vote followed by a floor vote rejecting impeachment was seen as one of the best possible outcomes. Not only would it remove the danger, according to this view, it would reinforce the impression that the inquiry was a partisan exercise, taking some of the sting out of history recording Clinton as only the third president faced with the threat of impeachment.

    Dash's decision to leave Starr's office provided the Clinton camp additional ammunition to make its case that the process has been unfairly tilted. Dash, who rose to national prominence as Watergate counsel, said Starr has conducted his probe professionally but should not have agreed to appear on Capitol Hill because it made him an "aggressive advocate" instead of impartial investigator.

    The move sullied what otherwise was a relatively good day for the beleaguered prosecutor. For so long an enormously unpopular figure with the public, Starr managed for once to sway many people that he was not the right-wing hatchet man portrayed by the president's allies, according to polls. A CNN/USA Today survey showed that 67 percent of the relatively small audience that watched rated his testimony as good or excellent.

    On the GOP side of the committee, that figure would be even higher as Republican members yesterday expressed disgust at Democratic efforts to discredit Starr during his 12-hour appearance rather than rebut the evidence he collected to support allegations that Clinton engaged in a "pattern of obstruction" to hide his affair with Lewinsky during the Jones case and subsequent Starr investigation.

    If the president's defenders do not begin offering evidence to change their minds, the GOP members warned, they will have to conclude that Clinton did in fact commit perjury in his Aug. 17 testimony before Starr's grand jury.

    "I'm expecting the other side to engage the facts and they haven't," said committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I'm just absolutely floored that we spent a whole day yesterday and not one person on their side, our side, or the president's lawyer, suggested that the meticulous work done by Ken Starr is in error."

    "I'm telling you now," Graham added, "if the facts don't change, this is the most compelling case of grand jury perjury I have ever seen in my life."

    Republican officials said they believe virtually all 21 GOP members of the 37-member panel will support an article of impeachment against Clinton for lying under oath to the grand jury, although there was not as visible a consensus about allegations of obstruction of justice or witness tampering and a decided lack of enthusiasm for the abuse of power charge Starr lodged.

    The committee asked the White House more than two weeks ago to respond to 81 questions about the Lewinsky investigation in an effort to narrow any factual disputes, but so far Clinton's lawyers have yet to reply. While White House officials said they plan to answer the questions, they were in no rush with the president away in Asia.

    The president's aides rejected the accusation that they have mounted an attack on Starr rather than a defense of Clinton, noting that the White House produced two rebuttal papers when the independent counsel's impeachment referral was first sent to the House in September.

    As for calling their own witnesses or presenting their own case before the committee, which Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has invited them to do, Clinton advisers said it is difficult to put together a defense when the panel itself seems uncertain of the sweep of its own investigation. In recent days, the committee has begun tentatively exploring allegations that Clinton associates arranged "hush money" for Webster L. Hubbell and charges that presidential allies may have tried to pressure Kathleen E. Willey in the Jones case.

    "It's a little difficult to respond to a changing landscape," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy. "What are they investigating? From day to day the witnesses change. From day to day the scope changes. . . . We need a little more clarity from them about what they're looking into. So I think we're going to wait and let things settle down first."

    The committee's direction has been particularly unpredictable in recent days. Other than Starr, it has called no major figures from the Lewinsky case, including the former White House intern herself, presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Oval Office secretary Betty Currie or Starr informant Linda R. Tripp.

    After Starr had finally wrapped up his testimony, the committee approved subpoenas for four witnesses who were not central to the impeachment referral: Bruce R. Lindsey, the president's friend and deputy counsel; Robert S. Bennett, Clinton's private attorney in the Jones case; Daniel Gecker, Willey's attorney; and Nathan Landow, a Democratic fund-raiser who allegedly spoke with Willey about her Jones case testimony alleging a sexual advance by the president.

    Unlike Starr, the witnesses will be deposed in private, starting with Gecker on Monday and Landow on Tuesday, followed by Bennett on Dec. 3 and Lindsey on Dec. 4. Hyde is still considering calling a witness to testify in public session about the importance of swearing to tell the truth, according to committee aides, and is likely to hold the first public debate on impeachment Dec. 7.

    According to several sources, Hyde indicated in the closed-door committee meeting after Starr's testimony that he wanted to interview Bennett and Gecker because the Clinton lawyer once suggested that Willey should hire his close friend, Plato Cacheris, to represent her in the Jones suit. Hyde wants to know whether that was an attempt to keep Willey allied with the White House.

    Both Bennett and Gecker may try to invoke attorney-client privilege to avoid testifying, although several lawyers said Congress recognizes only constitutional privileges against testifying, such as the Fifth Amendment, and not common-law privileges such as a lawyer's.

    Gecker declined to comment yesterday but Bennett was not so reticent. "This shows the extent to which the partisans will go in their efforts to harm President Clinton," he said. "Nothing is off-limits in their pursuit of him. They are willing to subpoena the president's personal counsel, willing to dump raw and untested gossip on the public record, willing to make a mockery of grand jury secrecy, willing to spend unlimited time and money to bag their prey."

    The American Civil Liberties Union objected to the subpoenas for the two lawyers. "It's an end run around a fundamental pillar of how the legal system works," said Ira Glasser, the group's executive director.

    But Lindsey is unlikely to be able to assert any attorney-client privilege because the White House lost a legal fight it took all the way to the Supreme Court to block Starr from summoning him. The justices this month let stand a lower court ruling that Lindsey, because he is a government-paid lawyer, cannot refuse to testify.

    As the president's closest confidant on the White House staff, Lindsey played the go-between for Clinton and Bennett during the Jones case and is often described as the keeper of the president's secrets. Since Starr never managed to get all of his answers from Lindsey, the committee wants to finish the questioning. Lindsey's lawyer, William Murphy, declined to comment yesterday.

    Landow, a prominent Maryland developer, may be another reluctant witness for the committee. After Willey named him in court papers as trying to change her testimony, Starr brought him before the grand jury, but Landow invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. His attorney did not return a message yesterday.

    Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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