By Juliet Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta
The House Judiciary Committee is slated to meet today in secret session to vote on releasing President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony and other evidence about his dealings with Monica S. Lewinsky. The meeting comes after several days of internal debate on the panel over how much material to make public.
Democrats on the panel have been uniformly against releasing the videotape. Among committee Republicans, there was some caution about appearing too partisan in releasing salacious material that duplicates or adds unnecessary detail to the already public report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, but there appeared to be fairly broad agreement to release as much information as possible.
"The presumption should go in favor of public disclosure," said committee member Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), noting that the House voted 363 to 63 in favor of releasing the report. "There is a consensus."
The House released Starr's 453-page report on the Lewinsky affair last Friday and gave the committee a Sept. 28 deadline to review the 17 boxes of additional material sent by Starr and determine what to make public.
At today's meeting, committee sources said, the panel plans to consider the release of the videotape and a printed transcript of the Aug. 17 testimony as soon as Friday, as well as the testimony of other key witnesses, including Lewinsky, and the 2,600-page appendix of the report.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) told reporters yesterday that the panel intends to release only evidence that is "credible and substantive," and that GOP members hope to reach an agreement with Democrats on what to make public.
"I will do everything, including bend over backwards, to retain and nourish and strengthen our bipartisan consensus -- if there is one," Hyde said.
But Democratic sources were already complaining that Republicans are seeking to depart from a bipartisan staff agreement on the criteria for the release of additional material.
Democratic panel members, despite fighting the release of the videotape, did not hold out much hope of winning that argument. Said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.): "[The] Republicans have the votes" in the committee. "If they want to roll over us, they can," she added. "We'll just keep fighting and trying to engage the American public in this process."
Today's meeting -- centered on the quarrel over the videotape -- loomed as the first test of the panel's ability to reach agreement on how to proceed with their review of the Starr report, which could eventually lead to a formal impeachment inquiry.
The resolution under which the Starr report is being reviewed requires the Judiciary Committee to make public all material -- the appendix and 17 other boxes of supporting documents and exhibits -- by Sept. 28, "except as otherwise determined by the committee."
Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), who wrote the resolution, said yesterday "it was my intent that nothing would be withheld," as long as it was "relevant." He acknowledged that "relevant" is whatever the committee decides.
Judiciary Committee members, and the House as a whole, have been clear since the resolution was written that the names, addresses, telephone numbers and other vital statistics of innocent people and "bystanders" would be excised from the documents.
Democratic committee sources said that staff from both parties also agreed to withhold material relating to ongoing criminal investigations as well as information describing the inner workings of the Secret Service or other security organizations.
Both sides continued to negotiate last night over whether and how to release additional explicit sexual details about incidents that are described in the already released Starr report. Lawmakers have publicly debated the advisability of making public the videotape, portions of which could be taken out of context, selectively edited and replayed by anyone with video equipment.
While Democrats opposed the release of the tape, most committee Republicans sought a balance between protecting innocent people's privacy and informing the public about the president's conduct in office.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said the committee aims to "distinguish between irrelevant information that is not necessary to substantiate an allegation and information that is necessary to substantiate an allegation."
He noted that lawmakers are not eager to release additional sexually explicit material, but they may have no choice. "If it is relevant, even if it's an excruciating detail, it may be necessary to release it," Smith said.
Others, however, had misgivings. "I was uncomfortable with the volume of salacious material that was [initially] made public, but [Starr] was forced to demonstrate there is enough evidence of sexual relations to prove perjury," said senior committee member George W. Gekas (R-Pa.). "Having done that, though, to undergo a second round will not serve an additional purpose, so I will not be dismayed to see a lot of the salacious material excised."
Like many committee members, maverick conservative Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would not comment on the videotape but expressed a desire to withhold material that is "overly embarrassing to the president and his family. . . . We don't need to make a sewer out of it any more than it already is."
Still, while Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) said, "I don't think the case ought to be built on a three-second soundbite slice of the tape," he noted that "the demeanor of a witness is inherently important. I'm predisposed to full disclosure."
So was Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who won sustained applause from House Republicans at a morning meeting yesterday with an impassioned speech on the need to "make sure the truth gets out."
But Graham, who led a revolt against Gingrich last year in part because of Gingrich's own ethics problems, was not impressed. "I don't let the speaker drive my train," Graham told reporters.
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