By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
Gingrich publicly dismissed ideas advanced by the White House of a lesser punishment for the president because it "simply puts the cart before the horse." During closed-door meetings, sources said, Gingrich signaled his intent to expand any impeachment inquiry into other matters such as Whitewater, campaign finance abuses and technology transfers to China.
The White House immediately accused Gingrich and congressional Republicans of trying to prolong the political crisis set off by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Monica S. Lewinsky matter in order to exploit it in the November elections. "Everything we're hearing tells us that they want to string this matter out forever and ever," complained White House press secretary Michael McCurry.
The rapid developments reflected the escalating partisan tension in Washington as Congress heads toward the first impeachment hearings since Watergate. Both parties effectively previewed their strategies for the six weeks until the midterm elections. Republicans hope to revisit all manner of Clinton White House scandals and put the full House on record before members go home to campaign; Democrats will promote some form of fast resolution they believe is favored by a weary public and then blame the GOP for resisting.
For all of the party-line skirmishing, though, Clinton came under bipartisan criticism from two previous occupants of the Oval Office. Republican George Bush lamented in a television interview broadcast yesterday that the presidency has "been diminished" because of his successor's conduct. Democrat Jimmy Carter was harsher before a college audience Tuesday night, saying he "deplored" Clinton's behavior, believed he "has not been truthful" to the grand jury and expected he will be impeached by the House though acquitted by the Senate.
Amid the rhetoric, the machinery of the impeachment process moved forward. The House Judiciary Committee made plans to meet Oct. 6 to begin poring through the evidence to determine whether it merits a full inquiry. Under a tentative Republican plan set forth yesterday, the full House would then vote on any committee recommendation Oct. 9 before recessing. If it goes forward with an investigation, the panel would return to Washington after the Nov. 3 elections to open impeachment proceedings.
During a bipartisan leadership meeting yesterday, both sides clashed on the scope and timetable for the inquiry. While House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) pushed for an expedited review by the Judiciary Committee focused exclusively on the Lewinsky matter, Gingrich said lawmakers should be free to look into any wrongdoing, according to sources informed about the meeting.
Gingrich suggested that an impeachment inquiry might need to be broadened to embrace ongoing House investigations into the administration's handling of satellite technology transferred to China and campaign finance transgressions by the 1996 Clinton campaign, the sources said. Gingrich also said Republicans wanted to wait until the Supreme Court decides whether Clinton aide Bruce R. Lindsey has to testify on the Lewinsky matter, and an aide later challenged the White House to stop fighting that case if it wants to speed up matters.
During a subsequent closed-door GOP leadership meeting, Republicans said, Gingrich repeated the theme and pointed to the job help provided by Clinton associates to former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell while he was under investigation by Starr as part of the Whitewater probe. Gingrich told colleagues the House should determine if there was a broader "pattern of conduct."
The interest in expanding any inquiry to other matters could reflect GOP unease with appearing to consider the ouster of a president over a sex scandal. Gingrich offered no hope to Democrats who want to put the Lewinsky dispute behind them quickly through a censure, large fine or some other intermediary punishment of the president.
"I don't understand how people can rush to a solution before they finish the investigation," Gingrich told reporters. "I just think there's an awful lot we don't know yet and there's an awful lot of evidence that hasn't been gathered yet and that people need to allow the process to go forward in an orderly manner."
Added House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), "There's no room for any deals."
Gephardt and other Democrats emerged from their session with the GOP leaders and, unlike their first meeting over impeachment issues, broke off for a separate news conference where they called for a quick probe of just 30 days or so and attacked suggestions to investigate other areas.
"Our point is Judge Starr has sent one referral after five years," Gephardt said. "We do not believe that the referral of one matter, which he thinks may contain impeachable offenses, launches a fishing expedition into every possible wrong that's gone on anywhere in the world over the last six years."
The proposal for such a rapid review drew an unusually sharp retort from Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who said, "The president had eight months to tell the truth, but instead he sent his staff out to declare his innocence to the world. Now the Democrats want to shut down an inquiry of his behavior in 30 days. I think the American people want and deserve a full, fair and independent review of the allegations against the president, not a quick peek or a passing glance."
The strong feelings spilled over to the House floor, where lawmakers rejected a Democratic resolution aimed at impeaching Starr, 340 to 71, with several top Democrats voting to consider the measure, including Gephardt, Minority Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.) and senior Judiciary Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.).
Clinton did his best to ignore the controversy in public again yesterday. He appeared with Vice President Gore last night at the gala dinner of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he received a warm greeting and reciprocated by thanking the lawmakers "for being my friend, for standing with me on sunny days and in strong winds."
At the White House, where confidence has soared since Clinton's grand jury testimony was aired nationally this week, much of the talk centered on some form of a deal to preempt impeachment. The intent is to move quickly, unveiling a plan within days with the support of congressional Democrats, because once a formal inquiry is launched, "you turn a certain corner" probably taking censure off the table for months, said a Democrat involved in the effort.
While most Clinton advisers appear resigned to the prospect that the House ultimately will launch a formal inquiry, the trial balloons for a censure or other punishment serve dual purposes -- either paving the ground for an actual resolution or making Republicans appear unfairly committed to driving Clinton from office.
"If we say we're willing to make a deal and they keep slapping it down, to the extent there's blame placed for dragging this out, there's only one place for the blame to be placed," said a White House adviser.
Even so, a senior Clinton political adviser said the White House has not ruled out the possibility that a censure bid might work if public support builds. "If Republicans make a political calculation that they are being blamed for letting this drag on, then it becomes ripe," this adviser said. "If the approval rating for Congress is off 15 points, then it'll happen."
Still, a new poll yesterday offered mixed reviews of the president's grand jury appearance. Support for resignation or impeachment dropped after the testimony was aired, but most of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press said prosecutors were fair in their questioning and that Clinton did not make a good case.
The assessment of his performance varied significantly depending on how much people saw. Those who watched most or all split almost evenly on whether Clinton made a good case, while of those who saw only part, just 34 percent said he did compared to 51 percent who said he did not.
To make a deal palatable to congressional Republicans, White House advisers know they need to make it appear unpalatable to Clinton, otherwise it would not appear sufficiently punitive. "We need some sanction that hurts so bad that Clinton wants to say no to it," said a person close to the White House, "and that the Republicans therefore know that's the case."
Former White House counsel Lloyd Cutler has been exploring a punishment much like that imposed last year on Gingrich, who agreed to reimburse the $300,000 cost of the ethics investigation into his actions. Starr has estimated the cost of the Lewinsky part of his probe at $4.4 million.
Clinton privately has expressed exasperation at the idea that he might have to pay so much, telling associates that if anything, he should be refunded the millions of dollars he has racked up in legal bills for Whitewater and other investigations that did not result in charges by Starr. But a Democrat close to the situation said the president is "appallingly unrealistic" about what he would have to agree to in order to clinch a deal.
Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) yesterday sounded gloomy that any deal could be cut to avoid the impeachment process. "I don't think that under the current circumstances there's much chance that it will be short-circuited," he said.
Staff writers John F. Harris, Ruth Marcus, Helen Dewar, Guy Gugliotta and Dan Morgan contributed to this report.
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