Judiciary Panel May Face Partisan Split
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 15, 1998; Page A8
Both Republicans and Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee condemned President Clinton's behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal yesterday, but a partisan chasm was already developing over whether the behavior is grounds for impeachment.
The committee's 37 members, like other Americans, read independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 453-page report over the weekend, but it was not until Monday afternoon that most had an opportunity to examine 17 boxes of supplementary material and more than 2,000 pages of appendixes kept in a locked room in the Ford House Office Building.
The panel will meet later this week to discuss how much more of the Starr material to release. It must decide by Sept. 28 on disclosure, and then recommend whether to conduct a full-scale impeachment inquiry, the first step in a constitutional process that could lead to Clinton's removal from office.
It was clear yesterday that the committee, long renowned for the ideological divide between its conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, is split sharply over impeachment.
Hard-liner Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), said Clinton wouldn't resign, because he lacked "even an ounce of discretion or honor." Impeachment is inevitable, he said, if Starr's evidence is "found credible." The case, he added, "is not terribly complicated and should be capable of being fairly quickly resolved."
But Democrat Robert Wexler (Fla.), who has emerged as a leading ally of the president on the panel, said that although it "is clear from the report that Clinton didn't tell the truth" in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, the Starr report "crystallized my view" that none of the offenses charged merited impeachment.
"I think what's in the report regarding the president's behavior is repugnant, repugnant to everything I believe as a husband and a father," Wexler said. "But it doesn't add up to what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and George Mason called 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' "
Senior committee Democrat Barney Frank (Mass.) said "virtual unanimity" on the Judiciary Committee would be impossible, and senior Republican Howard Coble (R-N.C.) said the atmosphere so far "has all the trappings of a fiercely partisan battle."
But Coble said he believed Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the highly respected chairman of the committee, "will be the saving grace to keep the fierce partisanship to a minimum." Still, he added, "I'm the ultimate optimist."
Hyde and ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) indicated in a memo to committee members that the committee would meet in executive session tomorrow or Thursday to determine whether to release some of the Starr material, including Clinton's videotaped Aug. 17 testimony to the grand jury.
Hyde, talking to reporters yesterday afternoon, did not say whether he planned to conduct hearings over the next few months should the House approve a formal impeachment inquiry, but indicated he wanted to begin as soon as possible -- including, if necessary, during a post-election, lame-duck session.
"I don't know of anybody, Republican or Democrat, who wants to stretch this out," he said. "It's a cloud hanging over the Capitol and the White House and the sooner it can be dissipated -- effectively, honorably and constitutionally -- the better."
Indeed, this was one of the few things on which committee members of both parties could agree. Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.) said Clinton supporters and opponents in his district are united on this front. "They all want this chapter of history behind us," Barrett said. "I think they want us to stay and get the job done."
Other than that, however, constituents were sending conflicting messages. Wexler, from a south Florida district with large numbers of transplanted retirees from the liberal north, said he had shaken "maybe 350 hands" in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Sunday, and "I did not hear a single negative comment against the president. It was weird."
But Coble, who represents a politically mixed district in central North Carolina, said letters, phone calls and conversations in the last three weeks have shown him that the "overwhelming number of my folks want him on the first train out of town."
Still, Coble added, "they want him on the resignation track, not the impeachment track." And Wexler suggested "a strong and compelling censure and reprimand of some sort, and hopefully the president will accept it gracefully."
But Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) noted that resignation is the president's option, while censure is up to Congress as a whole. "Censuring is not an issue before the committee," Sensenbrenner said. "There is nothing in the Constitution relative to censure."
Committee Democrats yesterday were still angry at the refusal by the House Republican majority to allow Clinton an advance look at the Starr report, and chastised Starr for including graphic descriptions of Clinton's encounters with Lewinsky.
"I think Starr made a mistake in writing it the way he did," said Frank. "I wish he had shown more sense."
But Frank agreed with most of the Republicans that "once the report was written" there was no way the committee could "keep it secret," so the House was almost bound to publish it sight unseen.
"It's a situation where you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't," said Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), a junior committee member. "In a perfect world, we could have excised objectionable material, but it would have taken away" Starr's case for perjury. "It's clear to me that the president gave false testimony again and again," Rogan said.
Like Rogan, senior committee Republican Charles T. Canady (Fla.) focused on the legal implications of the Starr report, particularly the charges that Clinton lied in a deposition and in grand jury testimony. "That would be an important element we would have to deal with," Canady said. "If the president committed perjury before the grand jury, that would have been a calculated act."
But Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), one of the few non-lawyers on the committee, drew a sharp distinction between a chief executive's personal conduct and the standard set the Constitution for impeachable offenses.
"It doesn't say, impeachment if you don't like the president," she said. "It doesn't say impeachment if you don't like the fact that he had an affair, or you don't like the language associated with that affair."
And Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) suggested some sort of "summary judgment," in which the committee -- before launching a full inquiry -- would decide whether Clinton's actions would require Congress to remove him from office.
"The question we will have to answer is whether these allegations, if true, destroy our constitutional government," Lofgren said. "If they were true, would they meet the legal standard? That might do the country a favor."
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