By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
The House Judiciary Committee will meet today to review as many as 60,000 pages of documents concerning President Clinton's involvement with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, ending the stormy prelude to deliberations on possibly opening a formal presidential impeachment inquiry.
The most contentious matter dividing the committee was the decision over whether to publish the unedited tape recordings of telephone conversations between Lewinsky and her former friend, Linda Tripp.
Most Democrats argued for full disclosure while House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said yesterday he favored redacted transcripts so "embarrassing irrelevancies" harmful to innocent people could be excised.
In any case, Hyde said, the sheer volume of documents still to be released 15 times more than what has been printed thus far made actual publication unlikely before the end of next week.
By that time, Hyde said, the committee will have been briefed on the substance of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's initial report and the supporting documents and would hold an open hearing Oct. 5 or Oct. 6 to debate the possibility of initiating a formal impeachment inquiry. If approved deemed virtually a foregone conclusion because of Republican enthusiasm for the measure the House would vote on it by Oct. 9.
Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Wednesday signaled his intent to expand any impeachment inquiry into other matters such as the Whitewater land deal, campaign finance abuses and technology transfers to China.
Yesterday Hyde told reporters he had little interest in "casting a very wide net" to expand the committee's impeachment deliberations beyond the Lewinsky matter. He added, however, that if another referral arrives that is "substantive and credible and tends toward an impeachable offense, we'll look at it, whatever it is."
Other GOP committee members agreed. "If committees have information that is relevant to wrongdoing by the president, I think that would be appropriate for them to forward that to us," Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) said.
Hyde refused to set a time limit for the impeachment inquiry itself, suggesting it would begin after Election Day and last as long as necessary. He shrugged off Democratic proposals to finish the entire affair within 30 to 40 days.
He also dismissed any suggestion that Congress quickly negotiate censure or some other sort of punishment for Clinton short of impeachment. "We haven't gotten nearly there yet," Hyde said. "But even so, if you'd like a curbstone opinion, I'm not entranced by that idea and our members are not."
Hyde's remarks echoed those of other committee Republicans and clashed repeatedly with Democrats' views on virtually every aspect of the panel's activities, from the handling of the evidence to the debate on an impeachment inquiry.
Committee Democrat Rep. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.) demanded that Hyde grant the Democrats the ability to subpoena witnesses and other powers during the impeachment inquiry, or "the American people are going to reject this whole proceeding as a scam."
Later in the day, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) lambasted the GOP's "unilateral pronouncements" and suggested that the panel should focus on determining what constitutes an "impeachable offense" before the inquiry.
Hyde dismissed this frequent Democratic complaint, suggesting the inquiry itself would be the proper venue. "We don't have all the evidence yet," he said. "And defining an impeachable offense right now would be an abstraction."
The handling of evidence began with a degree of bipartisan comity when both sides voted overwhelmingly to release Starr's 445-page summary report sight unseen Sept. 11. But subsequent release of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony and 3,300 pages of appendices to the summary report was accompanied by two days of bitter wrangling ending in a straight party-line vote.
But another frequent Democratic complaint that the committee recover Lewinsky material that is still held by the independent counsel appeared to be resolved yesterday, when Hyde announced that committee staffers from both parties could examine the remaining documents and take what they wanted.
And Democratic sources said yesterday that GOP staff aides had not met with them to discuss proposed redactions in the remaining 16 boxes of material, perhaps an indication that the Republicans did not intend to contest most of the Democrats' choices.
One exception, however, was the Tripp tapes, described by knowledgeable sources as jam-packed with profanity, graphic sexual descriptions and unseemly attempts by both Tripp and Lewinsky to manipulate the conversation. "You will grow to loathe both of these people," one source said.
Democrats for the most part advocated release of the tapes as a quid pro quo for the release of the Clinton videotape earlier this week, although Frank for one said he would be satisfied with redacted transcripts.
This was also Hyde's view, although he appeared almost to be thinking out loud as he described it. "We don't want to alter tapes. On the other hand, there is information that should be released," Hyde said. "We redact transcripts of the taped material and release those. That, so far, seems to be the best way. But the information that should go out, should go out. But there is an awful lot there that shouldn't go out."
Under the resolution governing publication of the Starr report, the remaining documents must go to the Government Printing Office Monday night, but will probably not become public for a few days.
Even as the House was contemplating how to proceed, Starr brought his grand jury back to the courthouse for some apparently routine work related to the Lewinsky probe. Michelle Peterson, an associate White House counsel, appeared before the grand jury for about 20 minutes to verify for the record what the White House has provided in response to Starr subpoenas, according to a source close to the case.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company