By Peter Baker and Juliet Eilperin
With approval of the first impeachment hearings since Watergate all but certain, the White House in effect gave permission to wavering House Democrats to back the move without fear of retribution if they feel they need to in order to protect themselves in the Nov. 3 elections.
"I think everybody should cast a vote on principle and conscience," Clinton said, portraying himself as somewhat removed from the process that will decide his fate. "It's up to others to decide what happens to me," he said, "and ultimately it's going to be up to the American people to make a clear statement there."
But privately Clinton refused to succumb entirely, rebuffing Democratic entreaties to drop his opposition to an inquiry on the eve of the historic vote. With 50 or more Democrats poised to vote for the Republican plan, Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, met with the president at the White House yesterday to convey a message from moderate Democrats who wanted Clinton to publicly declare today's vote unimportant and pledge cooperation with any probe, sources said, but the president did not agree to do so.
In a sign that the proceedings may not end up confined to the Monica S. Lewinsky matter, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee yesterday saying he could not rule out referring evidence of other misconduct by Clinton to Congress as possible grounds for impeachment.
"I can confirm at this time that matters continue to be under active investigation and review by this Office," Starr wrote without elaborating.
All indications have suggested that Starr has found no impeachable offenses in his four-year probe into Whitewater, the White House travel office firings and the mishandling of FBI files. Yet he said in his 453-page report to the House on the Lewinsky matter last month that he is still investigating "possible perjury and obstruction of justice" connected to Kathleen E. Willey, the former White House volunteer who accused Clinton of groping her in the Oval Office.
The passive public posture by the White House yesterday stemmed from a painful recognition that the outcome of today's vote is a foregone conclusion beyond the president's ability to influence. Clinton's advisers have concluded that House Democrats should vote however necessary to survive the election, reasoning that it is more important for the White House to have as many Democrats as possible still in office to cast more critical votes later in the process.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton reflected that sentiment during a closed White House meeting with 25 House Democratic freshmen yesterday. Harkening back to her days as a House lawyer on the Watergate impeachment staff, participants said, she rejected Republican claims that their current proposal mirrors the process used 24 years ago and she made the case for the more limited inquiry proposed by Democrats.
But she also told the assembled members that the White House would back them regardless of today's decision. "She made the explicit point that this White House stands ready to work with Democrats and support Democrats, help them get elected, work into the future, no matter how they vote," said White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart.
Several freshmen who went into the meeting anxious about their intention to vote for the GOP inquiry "felt better about it" when they left, according to an official familiar with the meeting.
The House is scheduled to take up the question of impeachment as early as 11 a.m. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will preside over the debate but does not intend to address the matter. Resolutions of this type normally are allotted only one hour of debate under House rules, although Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has asked for eight hours, a request unlikely to be granted.
The resolution by Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) would authorize the Judiciary Committee to conduct an inquiry without restrictions on its duration or scope. The panel would examine 15 counts alleging that Clinton lied under oath, tampered with witnesses and obstructed justice by covering up his affair with Lewinsky during the Paula Jones case, but it could also delve into other matters if it chose.
Judiciary Democrats yesterday refashioned the alternative they will offer on the floor today. Under their new plan, the committee would decide whether Starr's allegations, if true, meet the threshold of impeachable offenses before starting a formal inquiry. The panel could then move into a full investigation without another floor vote, but the House would have until Dec. 31 to determine whether Clinton's conduct merits impeachment, some other sanction or dismissal of the charges.
The vast majority of Democrats are expected to support their party's plan, but the real suspense is what happens once it is voted down by the Republican majority. Freshman Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) is one of those on the fence. Facing a difficult reelection, she called the White House and spoke to the president Tuesday. She said she may vote for the GOP plan because she does not want to be "painted into a corner" as opposing an impeachment inquiry.
"Let me make this clear: It is not going to be easy to vote for Hyde," she said. "I don't think it will be easy for anyone to vote for an open-ended investigation that appears to be so partisan."
The obvious distress among House Democrats stood in stark contrast to the unity on the other side of the aisle. When Gingrich informed a closed GOP conference yesterday that members were free to vote how they wanted on the inquiry, lawmakers said, not a single Republican spoke against the resolution.
Even moderate Republicans like Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.) support a probe without limits: "It's the only way to clear the air and achieve closure at what's best for the country, the presidency and the president."
Although so much is at stake for Clinton, aides said he has not engaged in a hard-sell approach with Democrats. He has called some members and returned calls from others, but not in large numbers equivalent to a full-fledged legislative lobbying campaign, they said. Yesterday, for example, they said he returned calls from three or four Democrats.
The White House has tried not to appear overly aggressive for fear of making a bad situation worse. The danger of that was evident yesterday when Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) attacked Clinton for trying to get 34 Democratic senators to sign a letter declaring they would not vote to convict him if the House decides to impeach, negating the chances of rounding up the two-thirds majority required in the Senate to throw the president out of office.
"I would suggest by way of friendly advice to the White House -- don't tamper with this jury," Byrd said.
For House Democrats with their own advice for Clinton, Fazio played emissary in an afternoon visit to the White House where he gave the president "the lay of the land," as he later put it. Sources said Fazio reviewed for Clinton the sentiments of various factions of the caucus, including the moderates who wanted the president to back down.
Fazio afterward played down the importance of today's vote and said the president was not aggressively lobbying members. "There is no arm-twisting going on," he said. "There isn't anybody being promised anything. This is really about trying to make the best argument so people can make a judgment on the merits."
Still, there was so little doubt about how that judgment will come out that the committee already has begun making tentative plans to guide the investigation. After the vote, the top Republican and Democratic staff members plan to meet to begin narrowing down the facts in dispute, according to several informed sources.
The aides will begin negotiating over witnesses to call. Republicans are inclined to subpoena Lewinsky, while Democrats want to call Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr., presidential secretary Betty Currie, Lewinsky's erstwhile friend, Linda R. Tripp, and Starr himself. A move to bring the independent counsel before the panel could touch off a fierce debate, as Democrats argue that his tactics should be subject to scrutiny and Republicans resist allowing the focus to be diverted from the president's actions.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company