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Panel Scraps Clinton Fund-Raising Probe

Livingston, AP House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston. (AP file photo)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, December 4, 1998; Page A1

    House Judiciary Committee Republicans yesterday abruptly closed an investigation they had just begun into President Clinton's campaign fund-raising, clearing the way for a decisive debate next week on articles of impeachment relating to the Monica S. Lewinsky matter.

    A "vast majority" of Republican House members are now committed to a floor vote on those impeachment articles, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in an interview, and will not entertain until later, if at all, a resolution of censure. DeLay's assessment, echoed by several other GOP lawmakers, came even as moderate Republican Peter T. King (N.Y.) added a GOP censure proposal to four such Democratic measures already in the works.

    Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), after meeting with DeLay, offered his first public comment on the timing of a House vote, saying "it would be my expectation" to vote on impeachment the week of Dec. 14. Should an article charging Clinton with lying under oath pass, deemed a 50-50 possibility by both parties, the Senate would be obliged to open a full-scale impeachment trial [Details, Page A19].

    The Judiciary Committee will open its debate next week after Clinton's attorneys present a defense Tuesday, but they are already clashing with Republicans over the conditions for that presentation. Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) yesterday allowed the White House access to some secret evidence it had requested but gave Clinton's team until the close of business today to say which witnesses they wish to call and warned that whoever appears to defend the president will be subject to questioning.

    The White House disparaged the committee's letter, with press secretary Joseph Lockhart calling it the latest example of the GOP majority's "erratic behavior."

    "In the past week, the committee has asked the president to respond to specific allegations, dramatically expanded their inquiry, and now have apparently withdrawn allegations," Lockhart said. "Their actions have been chaotic, partisan and irresponsible, fundamentally limiting the president's ability to present a coherent defense."

    Lockhart's statement did not detail any specific grievances, although White House officials said they were outraged by the suggestion that the panel would review, and conceivably reject, witnesses that Clinton's lawyers may want to call.

    The letter to Clinton's attorneys from Judiciary chief counsel Thomas E. Mooney offered the White House access to documents recently sent to the committee by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, including information on allegations that Clinton made unwanted sexual advances to White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey and Starr's request to the Justice Department to expand his inquiry to include the Lewinsky matter.

    Mooney said the panel could not provide material under court seal, including a U.S. District Court ruling concerning whether Lewinsky was denied access to her lawyer last January; documents related to Lewinsky's unsuccessful attempt to enforce an immunity agreement last winter; and internal Justice Department memos on whether to appoint an independent counsel to probe Clinton's involvement in 1996 campaign finance abuses.

    Republicans opened their short-lived probe of Clinton and campaign finance by winning court permission to review those Justice Department memos. But Hyde quickly put an end to that after chief investigative counsel David P. Schippers read them Wednesday, telling GOP panel members during a conference call yesterday morning that his investigators had canceled depositions of the memo's authors: FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles G. LaBella, the former head of the Justice campaign finance probe.

    The committee also withdrew a subpoena to Starr for documents relating to Democratic fund-raiser John Huang's involvement with former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell, after Justice Department officials said it would jeopardize an ongoing investigation. And a Starr deputy wrote the committee to say the independent counsel will not respond to Democrats' requests that he provide additional answers after his public testimony last week.

    Hyde's statement yesterday said little about the quick abandonment of campaign finance, except to pledge to "get to the bottom of these lingering charges" as part of the Judiciary panel's regular work, not its impeachment probe.

    Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) said, "I personally felt it wasn't very important to pursue" the campaign finance material. "It would have diverted us from the core issues, and I do know that is a fairly widely held view" in the committee.

    Democrats were gleeful about the Republicans' decision to abandon the campaign finance probe: "Obviously this spastic little lurch . . . was not well considered by the Republican majority," said Judiciary Democratic spokesman Jim Jordan. "Frankly, this whole thing is getting embarrassing." Committee Democrats are working on a censure resolution to offer as an alternative to impeachment, and yesterday House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) met with four Democratic colleagues who are drafting different censure resolutions to discuss how to proceed and the possibility of making common cause with like-minded Republicans.

    The Democrats seized on King's new proposal as a source of inspiration, and Judiciary member Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) commended King "for putting the public interest ahead of partisanship." King's proposal would include a provision criticizing Clinton's conduct, one exacting an unspecified fine, and another in which the president would publicly admit wrongdoing. King said 20 Republicans were working with him on the proposal, but none publicly acknowledged support, and a half-dozen likely backers, including members who have announced their opposition to impeachment, said they had nothing to do with the King initiative.

    Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a leading moderate who has spoken with King as well as other members about the prospects for censure, said he remained undecided on impeachment and has not signed onto King's plan. "My feeling is the president should not go unpunished in all this," Castle said, but adding that he would like the House to vote on impeachment before considering an alternative.

    Procedures for debate and voting on impeachment -- and perhaps censure -- remained undefined. DeLay said in the interview that he met with Livingston for about one hour yesterday morning but that the speaker-designate was "holding firm, even in meetings between the two of us," on his refusal to make known his views on impeachment until the Judiciary Committee has taken formal action.

    Livingston confirmed in a brief interview later that "obviously the issue of impeachment came up" but reiterated that "Henry Hyde has the sole authority as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to shape and mold in consultation with his members the Judiciary Committee's report. I don't know what they're going to say."

    Livingston said he had yet to decide whether he would allow a censure resolution to reach the floor, and would consult with Hyde on the matter. In a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), he appeared to leave open the possibility of censure, saying it was "unfair" to "arbitrarily prejudge the conditions under which [each member] casts his vote."

    But DeLay, a leading opponent of censure, said his Wednesday conference call with GOP members showed that "the preference of the vast majority of our conference is to have a vote up or down on impeachment.

    "Censure is not an option," he added, dismissing the King plan as ill-conceived. "I don't know what rule book he's reading from," DeLay said, noting the complexity of the initiative. "I can't envision how he would get such a resolution to the floor."

    In his news conference with Lott, Livingston was careful to avoid pressuring Hyde, saying that while "it would be my expectation" that the House would be able to vote on impeachment the week of Dec. 14, "it's not definite."

    "My preference would be to get it over with this year," Livingston said. "But if the Judiciary Committee doesn't complete its work next week, it would be pretty certain that it would have to be carried over."

    Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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