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Starr May Be Called to Testify

House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde. (Doug Mills – AP)

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, October 10, 1998; Page A1

    As the House Judiciary Committee prepares to open the first presidential impeachment inquiry in a quarter-century, one of the first witnesses to be called may be independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, the man who triggered the process with his investigation of President Clinton.

    Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said yesterday that he was willing to accede to Democratic demands that Starr be subpoenaed to appear before the panel to explain his eight-month probe into Clinton's actions in the Paula Jones lawsuit. But Hyde suggested he did not want to summon Monica S. Lewinsky to testify because she already has provided her story of an 18-month affair with the president to Starr's grand jury.

    "I wouldn't object" to calling Starr, Hyde said. As for Lewinsky, he said, "Right now, I can't think of any need to call her."

    Hyde and others who will be involved in the inquiry on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue spent yesterday grappling with how they will proceed, a day after the House of Representatives voted 258 to 176 to authorize impeachment proceedings for only the third time in American history.

    Committee members and their aides began deliberating about the delicate issue of which witnesses to call and how to structure any hearings. While neither side has developed firm plans, Republicans seemed less inclined to call many witnesses who already have testified, while Democrats were pressing to bring in some of the most critical players in the drama, including Starr, Lewinsky, Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., presidential secretary Betty Currie and onetime Lewinsky friend Linda R. Tripp.

    With Starr and Tripp, Democrats want the opportunity to challenge their motivations. With Lewinsky, some said they would like to test her credibility, since she was cooperating with Starr when she appeared before the grand jury to provide important evidence against Clinton. And with Currie and Jordan, Democrats would like to elicit and highlight exculpatory testimony from two witnesses loyal to the president who have said they provided help to Lewinsky without any quid pro quo for her false affidavit in the Jones case.

    Under the resolution adopted by the House on a largely party-line vote Thursday, both Hyde and ranking committee Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) have the power to issue subpoenas, but any disputes over whom to call would be resolved by the full committee, which Republicans control 21 to 16.

    The committee will investigate 15 counts alleging that Clinton testified falsely about his affair with Lewinsky during the Jones case and before Starr's grand jury, and that he conspired with the former White House intern to obstruct justice. Over the next few weeks, committee aides will begin preparing for hearings that would not begin until after the Nov. 3 congressional elections.

    If the House votes articles of impeachment, the Senate will not let the president off the hook, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said yesterday. "They'd better not be counting votes yet," Lott said of Democrats who believe the Senate would not remove Clinton. "If he lied under oath and obstructed justice, how can you not vote to impeach him?" he told the Chicago Tribune.

    The White House pledged yesterday to cooperate with the committee and began planning for a possible Tuesday meeting between top Clinton lawyers and senior committee aides to lay out a road map.

    "Obviously it's in our interest to work with them . . . [and] to cooperate with them," said Gregory B. Craig, the White House special counsel leading Clinton's defense. "We are in the business of trying to persuade people who are in a position to have authority over this that there is not an impeachable offense, no matter how the conduct is viewed. So we're in working-with mode."

    Indeed, the White House tried to avoid any inflammatory rhetoric regarding impeachment yesterday. Clinton shrugged off a question about the inquiry during an appearance with German Chancellor-elect Gerhard Schroeder. And aides and allies were instructed not to characterize Thursday's vote as a victory or a defeat, even though many viewed it as a partial win because only 31 Democrats voted for Hyde's resolution. Said one White House adviser, "The word of the day is passive."

    Still, as the process moves forward, the White House signaled it was not ready to surrender on important issues, such as potential conflicts over executive privilege and the question of whether the president himself would agree to testify.

    "Everything is on the table," Craig said, but "I don't think we're going to waive privileges that we claimed before." As for Clinton appearing before the panel, Craig said, "It's premature to talk about that because we don't know what the rules are, we don't know what the circumstances are. That's a long way off."

    While Republicans want to concentrate on Clinton's conduct, the White House strategy will be to avoid extensive debate over the facts and instead focus the dialogue on whether the president's behavior rises to the level of "high crimes and misdemeanors," the impeachment standard set out in the Constitution.

    "We don't want to get into a factual discussion," said a person involved in the Clinton defense effort. "To the extent that there are any conflicts between Clinton and Monica, we're not going to argue those."

    That does not mean the White House necessarily will concede important points in dispute; it will just try to avoid talking about them. Some Clinton strategists want the president to consider making a blunter characterization of his deception. "A lot of us believe that at some point, he's going to have to move from 'misleading' to 'less than truthful,' but never 'lying,' " one said.

    Perhaps the feistiest talk from the Clinton camp yesterday came from Vice President Gore, who called the House vote a "mistake" and said Democrats will focus on issues such as Social Security, education and health care.

    During a rally for Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), Gore said, "The American people are getting pretty fed up with the Republicans' focus on investigation and bad policy."

    On Capitol Hill, Judiciary Committee Republicans met to discuss working with their Democratic counterparts and the White House to reduce the number of contested facts before the committee.

    Chief GOP investigator David P. Schippers and Democratic counterpart Abbe D. Lowell may meet as early as Tuesday with Craig, White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff and Clinton's personal attorney, David E. Kendall, for what would be the first in a series intended to identify facts in the case that do not need to be independently verified.

    Republicans plan to begin taking depositions from witnesses in the weeks before the election, according to lawmakers, but plan to postpone any contentious depositions until after the committee returns, probably in mid-November.

    The antipathy between Starr and the White House erupted again yesterday in a fresh dispute over whether the independent counsel was forthright about his plans to send an impeachment report to Congress.

    In a brief filed with the Supreme Court this week, the White House pointed out that during a lower court appearance June 29, Starr said impeachment was a "remote" possibility at that point, just three days before he secretly went to a different court to win permission to send his referral to the House.

    Starr fired back yesterday, claiming that White House lawyer W. Neil Eggleston "deceived the Supreme Court" in the brief and mischaracterized the prosecutor's remarks. Eggleston defended his brief yesterday, saying that Starr's statement "fails to address the core proposition" and did not directly deny the quotation.

    In a related development, the appeals court which heard that June argument unsealed an unredacted version of its decision yesterday. While the court rejected Clinton's claim of governmental attorney-client privilege, a previously undisclosed portion of the opinion held that White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey could decline to answer some questions about his role as a conduit for information between the president and his private attorneys.

    Lindsey was an intermediary during the Jones case, passing information between Clinton and his personal lawyer, Robert S. Bennett. The court agreed that such information could remain protected under personal attorney-client privilege, concluding that a president is so busy it is reasonable to use a government lawyer as an intermediary.

    On another front, Bennett yesterday filed papers with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opposing Jones's request to introduce Starr's impeachment report and backup evidence as part of her attempt to reinstate her lawsuit, which was dismissed in April.

    Jones's lawyers want to use the evidence to prove Clinton lied about Lewinsky and therefore undermined his entire defense. Bennett argued yesterday that Starr's report is irrelevant to Jones's claim and introducing it is "intended to distract the court's attention from the central issues."

    Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report from Boston.

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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