Both Sides Harden Impeachment Views
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 2, 1998; Page A01
House Judiciary Committee Republicans yesterday opened a new front in their impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, voting in a rancorous session to examine allegations of Democratic fund-raising abuses even as Democrats assailed the move as an eleventh-hour "fishing expedition."
The campaign finance dispute was one of several signs of increasing intransigence on both sides. Republican House members privately discussed plans to block any vote on a Democratic alternative of censure that could undermine their impeachment drive, senior GOP sources said. White House officials, convinced that the Judiciary Committee had miscalculated, raised the possibility of declining to present any defense before the panel.
The public clash came over a party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee to compel testimony from FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, the former head of the Justice Department task force investigating the 1996 campaign. It also subpoenaed internal Justice documents generated by the probe, including the arguments by Freeh and LaBella to Attorney General Janet Reno about why she should recommend an independent counsel in the case. Lawyers for the panel later appeared in federal court seeking approval to obtain the memos.
The subpoenas interrupted what was supposed to be the day's main event, a nine-hour committee hearing on "the consequences of perjury" featuring two convicted perjurers that was meant to showcase what Republicans view as their strongest impeachment charge against Clinton: that he lied under oath to conceal his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky. The panel has been tentatively scheduled to vote on articles of impeachment related to the Lewinsky matter next week.
But inside the hearing room and out, the day's rhetoric was focused on the investigative turn toward campaign fund-raising, a matter already investigated by two Hill committees as well as the Justice Department. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the impeachment probe was "in chaos due to the lack of direction" and called on retiring Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to take charge. Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) retorted that Gephardt's "real fear is not the lack of direction, but rather the fact that we are moving in the right direction -- getting to the facts." Aides to both Gingrich and incoming speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) said they had no plans to intercede.
At the White House, the president's staff mounted an increasingly aggressive attack on the committee, deriding its proceedings as nothing but "partisan politics" that have turned off most of the nation.
Officials said they plan to ignore a demand from the committee that the White House announce by today whether it will present any defense next week and left open the possibility it would not participate in the hearings on the grounds that the inquiry has become illegitimate. "When you look at the last 24 hours, you'll understand why the public has so little confidence in this process and why there's so little support for the direction the Republicans are taking this process in," said White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, who argued the panel had been "hijacked by the extremists."
The intense partisan jockeying came as the committee heard testimony about the significance of perjury from witnesses who included convicted perjurers, retired military officers and federal judges.
The perjurers were Pam Parsons, a former University of South Carolina basketball coach who pleaded guilty to lying in a libel suit she filed about whether she had been at a gay bar, and Barbara Battalino, a Veterans Administration doctor who pleaded guilty to lying in a civil suit about whether she had a sexual encounter with a patient.
Battalino went beyond discussing her own sex-and-perjury case to discuss the allegations facing Clinton. "Because a president is not a king, he or she must abide by the same laws as the rest of us," she told the panel.
Hyde praised the women, saying their testimony illustrated "the fact that there are very serious consequences for perjury" despite Democratic attempts at "trivialization."
But Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) said the panel "has become the theater of the absurd," with the women "misused by some for the partisan goal of impeaching the president."
At one point in the tempestuous hearing, Hyde expressed exasperation with the Democratic 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."
By midday, a new and even more intense fight erupted over the Justice subpoenas, followed by a court hearing on whether the committee would be allowed to see them and a war of words between the parties about what this abrupt new line of inquiry means for the impeachment process.
Hyde defended the last-minute expansion of the probe even as he reiterated his commitment to try to have the matter wrapped up by year's end. "We are trying to find some things and we have good reason to believe they may be there," he said. "But we have been criticized for not having enough witnesses. Now we are criticized for having too many witnesses."
Hyde said the committee was "duty-bound to explore" the campaign finance question under the language of the wide-ranging impeachment resolution approved by the House. "We just want to look at the documents and see what was redacted there, and to see whether they lead to the White House," he said. "That's all."
Responding to Democratic complaints that the majority was making "a desperate stab in the dark in order to get the president," Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) said, "That simply is not the case. This committee cannot turn away from information that the director of the FBI and others tell us may bear directly on the resolution under which we are now operating."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Democrat, criticized Republicans for conducting "an open-ended fishing expedition" and "an impeachment inquiry in search of a high crime." He said Republicans had embarked on "a rather desperate attempt to breathe new life into a dying inquiry."
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) attacked Republicans for shifting the probe's focus repeatedly in recent days, noting that the panel had just explored allegations that Clinton made sexual advances toward then-White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and was in the midst of holding a hearing on perjury.
"We're not just in the wild goose chase, we're in the Wild Goose Chase of the Week," Frank said.
In interviews yesterday several committee Republicans said they had sought the campaign finance documents on the advice of Judiciary investigators, who believe the LaBella and Freeh memos suggest criminal wrongdoing on the part of the president. But many of these lawmakers said they were unsure whether any of the alleged activities could constitute impeachable offenses and said they still hoped to conclude the investigation in time for a House vote on impeachment this month.
Throughout the Justice Department's two-year campaign finance inquiry, Freeh has advocated the appointment of an independent counsel; his memo to Reno was written last year before she declined to name an outside prosecutor on the question of fund-raising phone calls by Clinton and Vice President Gore. LaBella submitted his memo to Reno last summer before he left as head of the Justice probe.
Lawmakers -- including Hyde -- have been extensively briefed on much of their contents, although the department has refused to provide full access to other committees investigating campaign finance, even under threat of being cited for contempt of Congress.
Yesterday, after the panel approved the subpoenas, committee lawyers appeared in a closed session before Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who on Friday rebuffed an earlier committee effort to obtain the documents, which contain internal Justice Department deliberations and grand jury material. She set another hearing for today.
The Justice Department, sources said, has been seeking an accommodation with the Judiciary panel since the memos were requested Nov. 18, taking the view that Reno's previous resistance did not apply to an impeachment inquiry. But the sticking point appears to be Johnson, who controls release of grand jury information.
Republicans said they are determined to obtain the memos, even if they have to extend the length of the inquiry. "If she refuses again, we'll carry it to the Supreme Court if we have to," McCollum said. "We don't have to do it this year. We'll carry it into next year."
The committee could take depositions from Freeh and LaBella as soon as this week in closed session. It also issued a subpoena for documents yesterday to independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, seeking information relating to John Huang, the Democratic National Committee fund-raiser who testified about Clinton allies' efforts to secure work for Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell after his resignation from the Justice Department.
Behind the scenes, Republicans on the committee and in the leadership continued to discuss how to handle Democratic plans to recommend censuring the president instead of impeaching him. Committee Republicans said most agreed that such a motion would not be appropriate as the panel weighed articles of impeachment against Clinton.
"I think a consensus is developing that censure is not a constitutional option," said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), adding that Republicans are wary of setting a precedent "subjecting future presidents to every whim of a Congress controlled by the opposition party."
Some Republicans, like Reps. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.) and George W. Gekas (Pa.), said even though they might oppose censure, they had not decided whether the minority should have a chance to offer such a motion. "That deserves further discussion," Hutchinson said. "I think there needs to be a fair and open debate."
Likewise, senior Republican leadership sources said "as of today," Republicans have no plans to allow a resolution of censure to reach the floor, particularly as an alternative to impeachment. The sources said that hard-liners within the GOP believe that having censure as an option would cause some moderate and middle-of-the-road Republican members not to vote for impeachment.
Some GOP leadership sources complained privately of what they described as a leadership vacuum. Gingrich has all but disengaged, the sources said, while Livingston has declined to assert himself in the impeachment debate: "Nobody knows who to call on the phone," one source said.
Democrats maneuvered yesterday to be allowed to bring up a censure motion. "On a matter of this gravity, Democrats should be allowed the alternative they desire," Gephardt said in a letter to Gingrich yesterday. "The clearest indicator of the weakness of the majority's case against the president is illustrated by the fact that offering a bipartisan alternative would defeat it."
Rep. Paul McHale (D-Pa.), who offered the first draft censure resolution last week, expressed optimism yesterday that "there is enough statesmanship in the Republican Party" to allow it to come to the floor during the impeachment debate. "History requires that members be given the opportunity to vote on meaningful censure."
Staff writers Peter Baker, Guy Gugliotta and Roberto Suro contributed to this report.
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