Has Partisan Flavor By Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 2, 1998; Page A16
No one on Capitol Hill yesterday disputed that the dismissal of Paula Jones's sexual harassment case was a boost for President Clinton. But there was sharp disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about whether it would help extricate him from the crisis facing his presidency.
Democrats said the decision would undermine the investigation of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and a possible impeachment inquiry.
Republicans acknowledged that it was a setback for those seeking to capitalize on Clinton's problems. But they contended the president remains in legal and political jeopardy. Starr is continuing his grand jury investigation into allegations that he obstructed justice and suborned perjury and House Republicans are exploring impeachment proceedings.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the dismissal "should now be the final word on what has become an unprecedented partisan witch hunt of one of the most popular and successful presidents of the 20th century."
"The president stands accused of three felonies: perjury, suborning perjury, and obstruction of justice," countered Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), a conservative member on the Judiciary panel. "The Paula Jones matter was a civil matter, involving a personal claim she had against the president."
But even the most partisan leaders noted the political unpredictability of the situation. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) quipped: "Since there've been so many bits of bad news and his poll numbers went up, since this appears to be good news for the president, I presume the political numbers will go down."
While elected officials and strategists split generally along partisan lines, most women's rights leaders said the ruling vindicated their reluctance to take up the Jones cause a reluctance that contrasted with the support of women's groups for Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.
"We have said all along that we thought it was a weak case," said Kathy Spillar for the Feminist Majority Foundation. "These are very tough cases to prove. And neither quid pro quo or hostile environment were apparent in this case."
Irene Natividad, chairman of the nonpartisan National Commission on Working Women, said U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright's "decision expressed the discomfort a lot of us had about the Paula Jones case. There has to be a kind of retribution and that never appeared. In fact, she got raises and promotions. And her demand for dollars always colored everything."
But Elizabeth Toledo, vice president of the National Organization for Women, said: "There have been some serious allegations made against the president about his treatment of women and his respect for the workplace environment ... this case has caused me to be concerned about this nation's commitment to a workplace free of harassment."
Anita Blair, executive vice president of the conservative Independent Women's Forum, said the ruling against Jones may prompt Congress to take further steps to make illegal Clinton's alleged behavior: "I do think that such an outrageous kind of gesture, assuming it happened, ought to be something no one should have to put up with in connection with earning a living."
There was a generally guarded reaction from the Senate that broke largely along party lines, especially on the question of whether Starr should now conclude his probe into allegations of perjury and obstruction that stemmed in large part from the Jones case.
Lott said the Jones case was always "a tough case to prove" and the ruling should have "no effect at all" on Starr's probe or on preparations by the House to handle a possible impeachment inquiry. "If he [Clinton] committed perjury, even about sexual allegations, that is an important matter," Lott said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said he was "happy for the president" if the judge's ruling stands, but said it may not be upheld on appeal if appellate judges determine that there were facts in the case that should have been presented to the jury. It "does appear" there were such facts, he said.
Hatch said the case should have no effect on Starr. "He has to go ahead and do his job," he said.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) agreed that Starr's investigation would not be affected, but many other Democrats argued that the ruling undermined the foundation for his probe.
"I think the public has been very skeptical of Starr's, quote, objectivity," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). "Having this case thrown out this way adds fuel to that fire, and rightly so."
Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), a former state attorney general, said there may now be legal questions about the relevancy of depositions that go to issues such as perjury and subornation of perjury that are critical to Starr's investigation.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said simply, "The president was vindicated."
In the House, which would receive any report filed by Starr, members generally showed restraint as well.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) said Judge Wright's finding was "probably a surprise after all this time," but he contended that Starr is very unlikely to base an impeachment report to the House on sex charges. "I would be surprised if it were based on sexual harassment in the White House. I would have thought 'high crimes and misdemeanors' were something more than that."
Asked if Clinton's high ratings in polls would dissuade the GOP House, Judiciary Committee member Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.) said: "I'm not prepared to make a corollary between his popularity and a future impeachment inquiry. The president does enjoy high approval ratings, but so does Congress. I don't know if it matters."
Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that Clinton still needs to address the facts of the case. "If the facts are true, the president's got major problems," he said.
House Democrats uniformly applauded the ruling, and questioned GOP motives in continuing to pursue the allegations against Clinton.
"I thought the correct legal judgment was made in this case. I thought this was not a credible case from the beginning," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "It's unfortunate a case without legal merit has put the president and the nation in a difficult situation for years now." Taking a shot at Republicans, Hoyer added, "The venom held for this president by some in this country is unparalleled. None of the facts matter to them."
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) suggested Starr should heed the judge's ruling. "Paula Jones had no case," said Jackson Lee, a member of the Judiciary Committee. "I hope it suggests a better focus for Ken Starr, that he focus on the facts and not just allegations and innuendo."
Among strategists, the reaction was more ambivalent.
Democrat pollster Fred Yang said, "All Democrats should feel good, and I think it will make people feel good about the president." But, Yang added, "It will have very limited impact, positive or negative. It's all about Bill Clinton and very little about the Republican or Democratic parties."
Ralph Reed, a Republican political strategist based in Atlanta and former head of the Christian Coalition, said the judge's decision demonstrates the pitfalls of Republican reliance on scandals to "weaken the administration and bolster Republicans."
"You end up turning your party's political destiny into someone's hand other than your own," Reed said. "If those scandals don't pan out, you are weakened by comparison."
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Juliette Eilperin and Guy Gugliotta and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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