By Guy Gugliotta and Juliet Eilperin
The 35-member committee has yet to hold a formal discussion of impeachment. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has asked junior committee member Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) to research the pitfalls of recent congressional investigations, but Rogan hasn't been able to get Gingrich on the telephone to talk about it.
Yet Gingrich's quiet efforts to float the idea of a special "task force" or "select committee" to conduct all or part of a House impeachment inquiry have brought the issue to the forefront of public consciousness, and triggered the first of what are likely to be many controversies.
Senior committee Republicans didn't like being trumped by the speaker and have not been shy about speaking up: "Others want a piece of the action," said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). "But the Judiciary Committee is the place where it is logical. Any change of venue would raise more eyebrows and open more questions."
And Democrats have been quick to voice their displeasure about the $1.3 million in funding the GOP gave the committee last week to hire additional investigative staff, who could potentially help oversee an impeachment probe.
"Newt Gingrich and a disorganized Republican caucus have so clearly revealed their political approach to this matter," said ranking minority member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), one of Clinton's most vocal defenders. "It is hard for the American people to believe it is anything other than yet one more wasteful partisan witch hunt of the president."
Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) lamented that "we haven't gotten off on a very good footing" with the Democrats. Still, he continued, "bipartisanship is crucial" to any impeachment inquiry, and Republicans "intend to be mannerly, civilized and focused. I can't speak for the other side."
This most recent dust-up is only one skirmish in a long and spirited war among some of the House's most articulate members -- the vast majority of them lawyers and skilled advocates for opposing views on the most controversial issues in the nation.
An ideological chasm separates them. The committee's majority Republicans are generally regarded as more conservative than the Republican Conference as a whole, while the Democrats are seen as more liberal than their colleagues.
Indeed, many of the members are famous for the strong stands they have taken on controversial issues. Early in his House career, Hyde, now 73, became a conservative darling as the architect of a ban on federally funded abortions. Late in his career, he has made a mark as a leading opponent of term limits, which he has damned as "dumbing down democracy."
McCollum, meanwhile, is known for his support of term limits, though he has alienated many of the movement's most fervent supporters by not taking as radical a position as they would like.
Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.) was the only member of the ethics committee to vote against fining Newt Gingrich $300,000 last year because he thought the penalty was an unfair "partisan effort to damage the speaker." Conyers, who voted less often with Gingrich than any other House member, voted "present" on the ethics penalty, because he thought the punishment was too soft.
Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) moved about 75 percent of Gingrich's "Contract With America" to the House floor in 1995. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) led the conservative revolt that almost cost Gingrich the speakership last year.
During a closed Democratic retreat this year, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told Clinton to fight the allegations against him, saying the Monica S. Lewinsky affair was similar to the political sniping that plagues black lawmakers once they are elected. Rep. Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.), meanwhile, has already filed an impeachment resolution.
Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.) is one of Congress's leading supporters of the death penalty. Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is one of its leading supporters of gun control.
There is no timetable requiring independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to make a "referral" to the House of evidence of any presidential wrongdoing regarding sexual improprieties or the other scandals under Starr's investigation.
And it will be up to Gingrich to decide how to handle any referral. But if he decides that Clinton may have committed "high crimes and misdemeanors," he will open an impeachment inquiry -- the investigation that serves as a possible prelude to a Senate impeachment trial, and, if deemed necessary, subsequent removal from office.
The House last conducted a presidential impeachment inquiry in 1974, when the Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon, who resigned before the full House could vote.
And while there is nothing that demands that Gingrich give a Clinton case to Judiciary, most of the committee's Republicans and Democrats agree that anything else would be an insult to history.
"I think it is critical that the public have confidence, and I am very concerned that any attempt to establish a select committee would undermine it," said Canady, who wrote a letter to Gingrich this month expressing his misgivings. "The public will think we are trying to stack the deck and achieve a particular result."
Once through the committee door, the inquiry will have to contend with the members' fierce ideological differences, which have grown worse since the Republicans took over the House in 1995.
However, Graham, a puckish conservative, welcomes the give-and-take: "I like lawyers, and it's like being in a law firm again."
Graham said impeachment "by nature is political," but "I have a lot of confidence in my colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, that the political aspects will quickly go into the backseat and the respect for the rule of law will come to the fore."
Perhaps, but Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who served as an aide to then-Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) during the Watergate inquiry, was not optimistic: "There was a great deal more bipartisan cooperation [in 1974] than I've seen this year," Lofgren said.
Lofgren shares with fellow committee Democrats Howard L. Berman (Calif.) and William D. Delahunt (Mass.) a reputation as a soft-spoken institutionalist who could play a pivotal role for Democrats in bringing the warring factions together.
In this, Delahunt, like many Republicans, is counting on the support of the prestige, patience and stature of Hyde.
"I have the utmost trust in him and my respect for him is as strong as ever," Delahunt said. "I know him to be a fair man."
And a man who is not afraid to blow the whistle, if necessary, added Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.): "If the evidence isn't that damaging, Henry isn't going to conduct a witch hunt."
But if the evidence is serious enough, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), one of the committee's few non-lawyers, hopes the panel becomes "more of a jury than an advocacy" forum.
"I cannot believe any member in true conscience could say they would look forward to this," Gallegly said. "The issue is far too important."
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