By Juliet Eilperin and Peter Baker
During a closed, day-long meeting, the committee's Republican majority won 11 party-line votes rejecting attempts by Democrats to delay or limit disclosure of grand jury material in deference to Clinton and other key players, according to sources familiar with the session. After seven hours of back-and-forth, the panel finally gave up for the day and agreed to reconvene this morning.
Much of the lengthy dispute centered on how much to edit Lewinsky's testimony to remove graphic descriptions of her Oval Office suite sexual encounters with Clinton, according to sources, with Democrats lobbying unsuccessfully for greater restrictions. So consumed was the committee with that and other issues that it never even got around to debating conditions for releasing the Clinton videotape.
The contentious nature of the full committee's first meeting on impeachment issues since receiving independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report indicated the difficulty the House will have sustaining the bipartisan spirit both parties pledged last week. If this opening session is any harbinger, the next several months may feature partisan trench warfare that could deeply divide Congress as it struggles to determine Clinton's future with midterm elections approaching.
The schism could be exacerbated by the makeup of the starkly ideological 37-member committee charged with reviewing Starr's report, sifting through the voluminous supporting evidence and voting on whether the House should open a formal impeachment inquiry on the charges that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice. More so than other House panels, Judiciary is stocked with liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans and few moderates to bridge the gap.
"There's no bipartisanship," Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), a senior Judiciary Democrat, complained during a break in yesterday's meeting. "They're just deciding what they want to do and doing it. We're not into fact-finding, setting down procedures, deciding what is an impeachable offense. What they're mostly trying to do is weaken the president's standing."
The mood on Capitol Hill was further soured by the furor over the revelation of a 30-year-old extramarital affair by the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). The House Republican leadership yesterday asked for an FBI investigation into whether the White House spread the story, which the White House vigorously denied.
Hyde himself tried to maintain a positive tone in describing the tense committee meeting after it ended. While "passionate at times," he said, "it was a productive debate. It's not a frivolous debate. We are accomplishing a lot." Yet Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) pronounced herself "astonished" at such an upbeat appraisal.
Even as Hyde and his Republican colleagues were pushing to show the public the videotape of Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, they separately moved to obtain a copy of the videotape of the president's Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones civil case in which he denied having an affair with Lewinsky.
Hyde sent a letter earlier this week to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw the deposition and later dismissed the lawsuit, seeking a copy of the tape so the committee could evaluate Clinton's original answers itself to determine whether he committed perjury. Wright, who has held twin tapes of the five-hour session under lock and key in Little Rock without even allowing the parties to have them, informed lawyers in the case during a telephone conference call yesterday that she will agree to Hyde's request. (In a separate development, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set oral arguments for Oct. 20 in St. Paul, Minn., where a panel of three Republican-appointed judges will hear Jones's bid to overturn Wright's dismissal of her case.)
If the committee ultimately releases the grand jury tape, as it still appears likely to do, the precedent suggests it could then make public the deposition tape as well. That would set up the prospect of television networks running long excerpts contrasting Clinton's January answers under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky with his attempts seven months later to defend those statements as "legally accurate," if deliberately misleading.
In January, for instance, Clinton said he never had "sexual relations" or a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky and could not recall specifically being alone with her. In August, he admitted having an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with the former intern including encounters where they were alone, but said he did not consider oral sex to be "sexual relations."
As it has regarding the proposed release of the grand jury tape, the White House yesterday responded mildly to the possible release of the Jones deposition tape as well.
"The decision would be in the hands of the House of Representatives and the ultimate test of fairness will be in the hands of the American people," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy.
But the president's Democratic supporters reacted strongly to Hyde's move. "I have serious concerns regarding the propriety of your seeking the release of a videotaped deposition in a private civil case that has now been dismissed," Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking Judiciary Democrat, wrote Hyde yesterday. Conyers also complained that Hyde acted without consulting him.
And Clinton's private lawyer, while avoiding any criticism of Congress, took aim at Starr yesterday, saying the independent counsel orchestrated events intending the tape of Clinton's grand jury testimony to be made public eventually. Attorney David E. Kendall said Starr's office justified taping last month's grand jury appearance by saying it needed it to show any missing grand jurors but refused a request to discard it after being viewed by absentees.
"The only purpose of preserving this videotape after any absent grand jurors viewed it was to ensure its public release and embarrass the president," Kendall said.
Starr shot back, calling Kendall's assertion a misrepresentation of the facts. Starr noted that Kendall originally agreed to the idea of videotaping Clinton at the White House, just as he was recorded twice providing testimony in Whitewater-related cases. Once made, the tape had to be turned over to the House under law, Starr said.
"Consistent with our legal and ethical obligations, we cannot and will not destroy evidence of a crime," he said.
As the White House tried to avoid becoming directly entangled in the congressional skirmishes, it continued to search for help in shoring up Clinton's Democratic base on Capitol Hill. The White House is assembling what one aide called "kind of a kitchen cabinet" of former members of Congress to make the president's case with their former colleagues.
One person who has agreed to help is former representative Pat Williams (Mont.), who spoke with Clinton in New York on Monday. The White House also has expressed interest in enlisting aid from former Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (Maine) and former representative Michael Barnes (Md.).
At the Judiciary Committee, the GOP leadership initially believed the grand jury tape could be released today after a vote yesterday. But given the prolonged debate, committee officials say it is unlikely to be made public today and it was not certain whether the panel might agree to a weekend release once a vote takes place.
The tape occupied little of the committee's time yesterday, sources said. With the release of Starr's main 453-page report last week, much of the debate focused on what of the 17 remaining boxes of evidence should be revealed to the public. Several lawmakers urged their colleagues to block out sexually explicit detail in the additional material, while others countered the graphic descriptions were central to the question of whether the president lied under oath.
Hyde said considerable progress was made in deciding which parts of the 2,600-page appendix should be withheld for privacy reasons or due to its explicit nature. But Republicans muscled past Democratic efforts to restrict disclosure on a series of contentious votes.
The Republicans rejected a Democratic motion to delay the release of any material for seven days so all the committee members could examine it in detail, sources said, as well as one that would have postponed the release of remaining evidence until the panel had defined a common standard for redactions. Democrats also failed to persuade the GOP majority to give the White House a 48-hour advance look at the material before providing it to the public. And the committee refused to open yesterday's executive session to the public or provide a transcript, according to sources.
Many of the remaining votes concerned specific sections of testimony as members went through it methodically, including more details from Lewinsky about an episode when she said the president used a cigar to sexually stimulate her.
Democrats complained about the rush. Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) argued that the committee should focus first on whether all of Starr's allegations were relevant to an impeachment inquiry before pushing for the public disclosure of evidence supporting the charges.
"The only way you get an intelligent start to the proceedings is by deciding what impeachment is, why is it in the Constitution," Scott said. "Without that process, you don't have any business deciding what should be released, because you don't know what you're doing."
Republicans, by contrast, accused the Democrats of ignoring the rules on disclosure, which the House passed 363 to 63 last Friday. "Many of the Democrats on the committee are out of step with the majority of the House. They'd like to subvert" the House resolution that directed the panel to clear material from Starr's investigation for release to the public, Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) said.
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she felt "a gut-level, deep sense of betrayal" by Clinton's admission that he misled the nation about his affair with Lewinsky and confirmed that she rejected an invitation to talk with him about the matter.
Feinstein, speaking out for the first time since she issued an angry statement after Clinton's Aug. 17 confession, recalled standing within feet of the president in January when he made his finger-pointing denial of a sexual relationship with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
"I watched very carefully," Feinstein said. "The body language, the directness of the statement, the visceralness of the statement, I believed it and I believed it totally. For seven months, this was something that was very important to me because I believed he wouldn't have said that in that way had it not been true. On Aug. 17, when I heard the statement, it was in a sense like my world came crashing down. I felt a sense of personal betrayal."
Feinstein said a short time after Clinton's statement last month, the White House asked if it would help to speak with the president. "I said no, I really right now don't want to talk to the president about this," she said. "I don't think it would be a constructive conversation at that point. I was angry."
After another call yesterday, she said she agreed to meet with a White House aide on the matter.
Clinton likewise came under fire on other fronts. His defeated 1996 Republican challenger, former senator Robert J. Dole, spoke out after a GOP fund-raiser in Kentucky on Wednesday night. "I think he did lie. It's pretty obvious he lied," Dole said. Perjury, he added, "always has been" an impeachable offense.
And in Massachusetts, the Democratic speaker of the state House, Thomas M. Finneran, compared Clinton to Richard M. Nixon: "Bill Clinton almost makes Nixon look like a moral giant the way it is going."
Staff writers Dan Morgan and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.
The last time a president faced an impeachment inquiry, Bill Clinton was a University of Arkansas law professor running for Congress. Here is what he had to say in the days before President Richard M. Nixon resigned:
"There's not any point now in his putting the country through an impeachment since he isn't making any pretense of innocence now."
"I think it's plain that the president should resign and spare the country the agony of this impeachment and removal proceeding. I think the country could be spared a lot of agony and the government could worry about inflation and a lot of other problems if he'd go on and resign.
... [There is] no question that an admission of making false statements to government officials and interfering with the FBI and the CIA is an impeachable offense."
Just as in 1974, the question of what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" justifying impeachment remains open to interpretation. Here is how Clinton defined it then and now:
"I think that the definition should include any criminal acts plus a willful failure of the president to fulfill his duty to uphold and execute the laws of the United States. [Another] factor that I think constitutes an impeachable offense would be willful, reckless behavior in office; just totally incompetent conduct of the office and the disregard of the necessities that the office demands."
"Nothing less than the gravest executive wrongdoing can justify impeachment. The Constitution leaves lesser wrongs to the political process and to public opinion. ...Private misconduct, or even public misconduct short of an offense against the state, is not redressable by impeachment."
NOTE: The articles quoting Clinton in August 1974 are posted on the Internet site of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the merged successor to the two newspapers. The February 1974 statement comes from a University of Arkansas underground newspaper as quoted in a New York Times opinion piece by John W. Whitehead, who conducted the interview. Whitehead, then a law student, is now president of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia foundation financing Paula Jones's legal case against Clinton.
-- Compiled by Peter Baker
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company