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Hearing Opens With Party Lines Drawn

House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde speaks to ranking Democratic Rep. Jon Conyers at the start of impeachment hearings. (AFP Photo)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page A31

    It was as if someone had put raw meat in front of a pack of wolves. Scarcely had independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr taken his seat than the snarling began. Democrats made a motion. Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) denied it. Democrats insulted him, and Hyde seemed to lose his cool for a moment.

    "You are disrupting the continuity of this meeting," he sputtered.

    "Disrupting a railroad, more like it," interrupted Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.).

    For more than 12 hours yesterday, the nation got to watch the House Judiciary Committee in one of the set pieces of political theater that have defined its impeachment investigation and made consensus among its members elusive.

    Evidence was first presented, then praised and ridiculed. Republicans impugned President Clinton. Democrats impugned Starr. Members spoke angrily, pointed fingers and made speeches, and, in the end, nothing was resolved, except that most Americans could rest assured that the partisan rancor that characterizes the House Judiciary impeachment inquiry still burns with undiminished intensity.

    Everybody had practiced. Starr had worked on his speech in front of video cameras, and had it down to 58 double-spaced pages. It took him two hours and fifteen minutes to slowly deliver it in a faintly nasal voice.

    Democratic staff had rehearsed chief counsel Abbe D. Lowell in a moot hearing format to give him practice on his questions, and Republicans had agreed beforehand that they would try to quash Democratic efforts to get Clinton's lawyers more than the 30 minutes of cross-examination that Hyde had allotted.

    But for all the preparation, the committee stumbled out of the gate. Hyde, the usually unruffled giant who has imposed at least a modicum of congressional "comity" on his abrasive and ideologically opposed colleagues, appeared taken aback by the animosity radiating from the Democrats as Starr took his seat.

    Scarcely had he gaveled the meeting to order before Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) made the motion that Clinton's attorneys be allowed to question Starr for two hours. He read from a prepared statement, and Hyde countered with his own. He was denying the motion, he said, because "the hearing today is not a trial, nor is it White House versus Ken Starr or Republican versus Democrat."

    But Hyde was losing control. As soon as he denied the motion, Delahunt asked to speak again, and did. Hyde started to reply when Watt interrupted him, calling for a point of order.

    "I don't yield for any points of order. ..." Hyde began.

    Other Democrats interrupted, and the meeting collapsed in a cacophony of angry voices until Hyde finally asserted himself, saying "I don't intend to shut anybody off," then pointed at Watt.

    When Watt complained about "a railroad," Hyde responded: "The gentleman will observe decorum, and I would appreciate it if you would speak when you're recognized. ... I have not recognized you."

    As other Democrats got into the conversation, it became clear they wanted to score a political point, and would not be denied. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) demanded that the panel approve Delahunt's motion, noting that "we have always argued that justice is blind, but we've never argued that justice is gagged."

    Finally, Hyde relented. The Democrats got their vote and lost on a ballot that split along party lines, 21 to 16. The administration's lawyers would not get more than 30 minutes – unless Hyde decided to give it to them.

    Republicans were somewhat dismayed that Hyde had given in, but Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said later that GOP panel members know that when Hyde gets to the hearing room, "his whole sense of fairness overwhelms him."

    So the hearing began. Most Republicans on the panel appeared to share Starr's view that lying under oath constitutes an impeachable offense, and they are getting less and less reluctant to say so.

    "Do we still have a government of laws and not of men?" asked Hyde in his opening statement. "Does the law apply to some people with force and ferocity while the powerful are immune? Do we have one set of laws for the officers and another for the enlisted?"

    Wrong question, replied ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). Most Democrats appear to believe that nothing in the Monica S. Lewinsky matter constitutes a sin grave enough to unseat a president, and Conyers was no exception.

    He called Starr "a federally paid sex policeman spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse," and argued that Starr's conduct in entering the Lewinsky case, the tactics of his investigators and Starr's own alleged conflicts of interest cast doubt on both his motives and the veracity of his evidence.

    "Now, the majority members of this committee have called the prosecutor forward to testify in an unprecedented desperation effort to breath new life into a dying inquiry," Conyers said.

    When it was his turn to speak, Starr's presentation had something of a calming effect – at least at first. His speech had been leaked the previous night and everyone knew what was in it: a reprise of his investigation into Clinton's involvement with the former White House intern and a review of the other investigations still pending in his office.

    But when Starr started wandering away from Lewinsky, Lee interrupted again, raising a point of order that the panel was denying the president and any other parties due process.

    Democrats took every opportunity to needle the independent counsel. They made sure that Starr was sworn in, and when Starr remarked that he wasn't on "the talk show circuit," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) took him to task, noting that he had just appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America." "Isn't that a false statement under oath?" Lofgren asked. "Shouldn't you be prosecuted for perjury?"

    Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D-Va.) said later the Democrats had planned to make Starr's credibility and conduct an issue, and the strategy clearly had some Republicans fuming. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) called Lee "rude and petty" for interrupting, and said he was "getting sick and tired" of Democrats. "They're the ones who are being unfair and partisan."

    With tempers seething and questioning by the panel scheduled to begin, it looked like the thunderstorm was ready to break. But Hyde, who had scrambled to take and maintain control of his fractious colleagues earlier in the day, hit on a perfect strategy to deflate the worst rancor of the proceedings. He simply let the Democrats talk.

    Lowell started cross-examining Starr after lunch. He had a half-hour under the rules and was exhausting it rapidly in highly technical legal questions that Starr parried with ease – and at length.

    Lowell was running out of time. "I'll ask Mr. Starr if he can be more concise," Hyde said, smiling at Starr, "although I'm enjoying your answers." Minutes later time expired. Lowell looked to Hyde for help and Hyde said Lowell could have "an additional 30 minutes."

    Republicans growled. The audience gasped.

    And just like that the tension dissipated, and with only minor interruptions the questioning proceeded. Republicans heaped praise on Starr and lobbed softballs. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), the president's sharpest critic on the panel, marveled at Starr's equanimity, given the "nonsense and inequity – to put it mildly – that you've had to put up with from the other side."

    Democrats regrouped and went after Starr by dividing up the questions and asking them in barrages so Starr would not be able to interrupt with long, boring answers. After discovering the difficulty of piercing Starr's armor with tough queries, they resorted to the time-honored congressional practice of substituting speeches for questions.

    "The committee ought to put up a sign "out to lunch, gone fishing," noted Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). The panel was on a prolonged "fishing expedition" and it "is still trying to bait the hook. It is clear to me that if this case is about sex and lying about sex, this will never rise to the standard of impeachment."

    Having found that magnanimity was paying off, Hyde permitted presidential lawyer David E. Kendall to question Starr beyond the half-hour he was initially allotted. But when Kendall pressed his good fortune even further, the chairman demurred.

    No, Hyde said. No more. He guaranteed Kendall would have a future opportunity to address the committee fully and "produce whatever you want by way of evidence, witnesses, exculpatory material."

    He paused. "I see you're putting your glasses away, which is a healthy sign."

    The Republicans closed the hearing with their chief counsel David Schippers praising Starr and comparing the kid-glove treatment Clinton received during his grand jury testimony with the beating the Democrats had administered throughout the day.

    "Did anybody cut off the president?" he asked, then concluded by remarking, "I'm proud to be in the same room with you and your staff." Republicans sent Starr away with a standing ovation. The Democrats watched silently.

    In the end, giddiness seemed to vie with partisanship. After Starr left the room, the two sides jousted over Republican efforts to subpoena several more witnesses. The Republicans then settled the matter behind closed doors after defeating a Democratic effort to debate the matter in public.

    As the committee began voting on the proposal around 11 p.m., Hyde called for a tally before a single Democrat had cast voted. Democrats erupted into laughter at the display of naked power, and even Hyde had a chuckle: "Haven't you ever heard [the phrase] 'cut to the chase'?"

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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