House GOP Pushes Wide Clinton Probe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 1998; Page A01
House Republicans yesterday pressed ahead with a plan to give the Judiciary Committee the power to pursue a Watergate-style open-ended impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, GOP sources said, in a resolution that would adopt the same broad language as that passed by Democrats 24 years ago to investigate President Richard M. Nixon.
With the Judiciary vote slated for early next week on whether to open formal proceedings stemming from the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, committee Democrats met yesterday in an attempt to write an alternative with strict limits on the length and scope of any inquiry.
As both parties struggle over the right approach to take in investigating and disciplining Clinton, yesterday's Democratic discussions reflected the apparent demise of the White House's original hope that the panel would approve any impeachment inquiry with only Republican support.
While a Democratic leadership aide called the minority party's strategy "a work in progress," discussions among Democratic Judiciary members yesterday called for rallying against the open-ended investigation backed by Republicans but in favor of a more restrained and expeditious process that would be over by the end of the year. This approach, sources said, had the support of congressional leaders and at least the tacit backing of the White House, whose representatives were consulting regularly with Judiciary Democrats.
At a time when Clinton needs congressional support in the delicate negotiations over impeachment strategy, senior White House officials yesterday tried to mollify angry Democratic lawmakers by pledging not to support a planned television advertising campaign on Clinton's behalf. Some leading Clinton supporters, in consultation with the White House, had proposed enlisting labor unions and civil rights groups to raise at least $3 million for a campaign next month condemning Republicans for their pursuit of personal scandal.
But Democrats on Capitol Hill rebelled, fearing that such an effort would draw money away from congressional campaigns. White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles yesterday promised House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) that Clinton's political team was now opposed to the effort.
People for the American Way, the liberal group that first proposed the ads, said it is going ahead with planning for a modest ad campaign. Yesterday's publicity led to a spurt of unsolicited donations, according to senior vice president Mike Lux.
But the more elaborate effort -- for which senior Clinton political advisers had pledged to raise money and produce ads -- has been scotched.
Democrats in both the House and Senate were delighted by the news.
"It was a very dumb idea," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.), the head of Senate Democrats' campaign committee. "The president is not on the [November] ballot. If you are going to spend money, you should spend it on people who are on the ballot."
Congressional reaction was so intense in part because the prospect of a pro-Clinton campaign exacerbated already high tensions over Democratic fund-raising in this election cycle. State parties and the House and Senate campaign committees have expressed growing levels of unhappiness with what they view as the inadequate amounts that the Democratic National Committee is putting into 1998 races.
But Bowles's late-afternoon appearance on Capitol Hill succeeded in lowering temperatures a bit. In addition to ruling out a Clinton-backed ad effort, Bowles also said Clinton is committed to vetoing any GOP-passed tax cuts and working in concert with congressional Democrats in an impending showdown with Republicans over spending bills. "Peace has broken out," said a senior House Democratic aide.
Whether it can last under the pressure of fast-breaking events is uncertain. The Judiciary Committee has approved the release, expected Friday, of as many as 4,000 pages of material collected by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in his probe of whether Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice in his efforts to conceal his affair with Lewinsky in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
A settlement in the Jones case could also happen by week's end, although sources said talks appeared stalled yesterday. Each side was sticking to its last offer, with Jones's insisting on $1 million and Clinton's lawyer offering $500,000, the sources said.
Jones, whose lawyers filed new papers yesterday in their appeal of the April dismissal of her suit, has dropped her long-standing demand for an apology from Clinton, whose advisers described a settlement with her as an important element leading to an eventual deal with Congress to head off impeachment.
But any deal for the White House seemed remote yesterday. In the Senate, partisan tensions flared anew after Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said "bad conduct" that brings the presidency into "disrepute" is sufficient grounds for impeachment. He declined to say whether he believes Clinton's conduct fits that description.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) lashed back at Lott, accusing him of applying a different standard to Clinton than he did to Nixon, when, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, then-Rep. Lott signed a minority report arguing against impeachment for "general misbehavior."
The House too found itself looking to Watergate precedents. According to GOP sources, aides to Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) have begun drafting rules for an impeachment inquiry based almost entirely on the resolution that then-Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) offered in February 1974.
The resolution would allow Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to issue subpoenas as well as Hyde, for example, but any disputed subpoenas would be subject to a vote of the full committee, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 21 to 16. The GOP's language would also allow it to pursue other allegations of impeachable offenses, beyond the material Starr presented about Lewinsky.
Democratic Judiciary members, determined to narrow the focus of the inquiry and bring it to an early close, met on the Hill late yesterday afternoon to discuss how best to counter Republicans. Some members argue that enough is already known to skip an impeachment inquiry and instead simply censure the president.
A House floor vote is slated for the end of next week on the inquiry. There are as many as 50 Democrats who need for their own political reasons to be on record as supporting an impeachment inquiry, according to congressional and administration head counts.
One Clinton adviser yesterday predicted that many Democrats in tough races will vote on the floor first for the Democratic alternative and, assuming that fails, also vote for the GOP version. "The White House would like to have a partisan vote, but I don't think it's going to happen," said this adviser, a former administration official.
A Capitol Hill source said yesterday that detailed, toughly worded language has been drafted for a bill censuring Clinton, and it is possible that the bill would be unveiled in coming days.
More likely, according to administration and congressional sources, is an alternative Democratic impeachment inquiry resolution. The version Democrats were laboring over yesterday would establish a definitive time frame for the inquiry, lasting between the 30 days Gephardt and Conyers proposed last week and the end of the year; it would require that the Judiciary Committee define what constitutes impeachable offenses before evaluating the facts of Starr's case; and it would expressly raise the option of censuring Clinton as an alternative to impeachment.
In the midst of these preparations, a bipartisan group of Judiciary Committee members wrote Hyde and Conyers yesterday asking them to find out from Starr whether he intends to send any additional grounds for impeachment to Congress. In Starr's Sept. 11 referral to Congress, the independent counsel indicated he would soon decide "what steps to take, if any, with respect to the other information" his office acquired in a probe that began four years ago looking into Clinton's Whitewater land deal.
Judiciary investigators -- one from each party -- went to Starr's office Monday to survey the remaining material his office has. Democrats contend it could prove helpful to Clinton and bring needed scrutiny to Starr's tactics, though Starr has countered that he has already given lawmakers any relevant information. The Judiciary staff has now asked Starr for an index of the additional material housed in roughly 20 boxes and will then decide what to request.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Ruth Marcus, Peter Baker and Ed Walsh contributed to this report.
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