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Judiciary 'Breakfast Club' Attempts to Bridge Partisan Gulf

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Excerpts: Opening Statements from Last Week's Inquiry Hearing

By Juliet Eilperin and Dan Morgan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 11, 1998; Page A21

It was the kind of proposal that would have been rejected out of hand during Thursday's bitter, partisan House debate over impeachment. But when a House Judiciary Committee Democrat yesterday suggested exploring legal and constitutional grounds for imposing lesser punishments on President Clinton, at least one of his Republican colleagues on the panel was receptive.

"That's one thing we can focus on in a bipartisan way," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

The possibility of looking into alternatives to impeachment was just one of several topics discussed at a breakfast meeting of a small but growing bipartisan group of Judiciary Committee members who are trying to bridge the partisan gulf and overcome the rancor of the last few weeks.

The group is still too small and too new to be a bellwether of bipartisan cooperation and comity in the coming impeachment process. It is far from clear if the group will form the nucleus of a "centrist" faction that could soften the sharp ideological divisions on the Judiciary Committee and lead to accommodations on the impeachment issue.

But yesterday the small cadre, which began meeting regularly several weeks ago to see where Judiciary Committee Democrats and Republicans could band together on procedural matters, was expanded from six to 10 members, or more than a quarter of the panel's 37 members.

Over breakfast yesterday in the House Members' Dining Room, five panel members discussed how to move beyond the partisanship of the past week and move forward with the investigation.

"Right now we're in a game of Russian roulette, where both parties are using this [impeachment process] to their advantage by playing to their base," said Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.), a member of the group. "At some point we have to stop playing to the base and start bringing it to closure."

During the breakfast session, Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) noted that the resolution the House adopted by a vote of 258 to 176 on Thursday included a provision that allowed the Judiciary Committee to report "recommendations" other than impeachment once an inquiry ends.

Delahunt suggested that lawmakers examine whether there are legal and constitutional grounds for alternative sanctions, such as censure.

"We have to take seriously the mandate of the House of Representatives," Delahunt said in an interview later. "If one carefully reads the resolution, I think it's clear we've been instructed to look broadly."

Graham, the only Judiciary Republican who has publicly entertained the possibility of censuring the president, said the group could research the precedents behind such sanctions. Members can explore those options, he added, because they have no preconceived notions of how the inquiry should end.

"We've all admitted to each other that we don't have a result that we have to justify," he said. "We've sort of promised to each other we'll just take this where it goes."

In addition to Graham, Barrett and Delahunt, Reps. Ed Pease (R-Ind.) and Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) attended yesterday's breakfast. A sixth member of the group, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) was out of town. Later in the day, Reps. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) and Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) joined the group.

Delahunt referred to it as "the breakfast club," an allusion to a movie profiling high school outcasts hauled in for detention on a Saturday. Hutchinson simply called it "a bipartisan discussion group." Though members were tight-lipped about their discussions, they said yesterday's dialogue was meant to bring out concerns on both sides.

Thursday's vote to launch a formal impeachment inquiry initiated a new page in what until now has been a heavily politicized chapter in the House. In the new, judicial phase, the process will come down to earth as attorneys for both sides begin sorting out what facts can be agreed to and issuing subpoenas and questions to witnesses who can clarify disputed evidence or fill in missing information.

"We're in a fact-finding process right now," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). McCollum, who served on the Iran-contra committee that investigated the Reagan administration arms-for-hostages scandal in 1987, said this investigation is different. Then, congressional investigators had to spend months and travel far and wide to collect testimony. In this case, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr has already taken hundreds of hours of testimony, and five detailed volumes of material have been made public. But there are substantial disparities in some of the key testimony.

"You have witnesses saying contradictory things," said McCollum. "We may have to call witnesses for no other purposes than to determine who's credible. We've got serious conflicts in terms of the facts. That may or may not require the taking of further statements."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said last week there was no possibility of public hearings before mid-November. Lofgren charged yesterday that the only reason for the delay was that "the proceedings are going to be so disliked by the American people that they're afraid to do them before the election."

On the other hand, Lofgren and Rep. Rick Boucher (R-Va.) have called for a thorough review of what constitutes an impeachable offense under the Constitution prior to collating facts and evidence.

Democrats have made clear they want to summon Starr as a witness. Some Democrats suggested yesterday they might also try to call his private law partners to explore his possible connections to attorneys for Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton.

But Starr still has a loaded weapon in the form of possible new referrals to Congress suggesting additional impeachable offenses committed by Clinton.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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