Report's Handling Still in Dispute
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 1998; Page A13
As the vans carrying independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report arrived on Capitol Hill yesterday, House leaders were furiously working out terms for unveiling portions of the report. By the end of the day, Republicans had achieved their most pressing goal -- the imminent release of Starr's 445-page referral to the public -- while Democrats were still arguing that lawyers for President Clinton should have a chance to review other parts of Starr's submission before they are made public.
Members remained split between and within both parties over how to proceed with the rest of the material turned over to them by Starr in 36 sealed white boxes -- two sets of 18 boxes -- including grand jury transcripts and the tapes Linda R. Tripp made of her conversations with Monica S. Lewinsky.
"You have divided camps on both sides of the aisle," explained House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), the man who ultimately must write the procedures for handling Starr's report.
The fact that Republicans and Democrats were talking at all to each other about the procedures for dealing with the report was a new turn of events. Until a few days ago, House Republicans had declined to consult with their Democratic counterparts in crafting rules for reviewing Starr's findings. Among numerous bipartisan strategy sessions yesterday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) negotiated procedures both in the morning and the early evening, along with House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and a few other key lawmakers.
Yesterday also marked the first time that Judiciary Committee staff members spoke directly with Starr's chief deputies, Jackie Bennett and Robert J. Bittman, who provided a critical road map for congressional officials. In a 20-minute telephone conversation, according to lawmakers and staff, the prosecutors guided aides to Gingrich, Hyde and Conyers through the contents of the sealed boxes now under armed guard in the Ford House Office Building.
While the leadership reached agreement on releasing the main report immediately following a House vote to make it public -- expected tomorrow -- questions about how to deal with the more than 2,000 pages of appendices and other items accompanying Starr's referral were among the many still to be answered. Both sides cautioned that some of the material might need to be withheld to avoid causing what Gingrich described as unnecessary harm to "innocent people's lives."
GOP leaders have proposed allowing Hyde and Conyers, along with their aides, to survey the material over a period of a week to 10 days to determine what should be kept secret. Solomon told reporters last night he believed that a week would be enough to enable them to weed out any information that would violate individuals' privacy rights.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to determine what is pertinent and what is not in this material," said Solomon, who was reading from a manila folder labeled "Impeachment" in red ink as he spoke with the press.
But Democrats argued that Clinton and his lawyers should have access to that material before Congress makes it public, according to Judiciary Democrats' spokesman Jim Jordan, and demanded the White House be given 48 hours to review it before its release.
"To Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee, this is a matter of simple and fundamental fairness," Jordan said.
Republicans also indicated that they will postpone until next week any decision on the rules under which the Judiciary Committee -- which will vote on whether to turn it over to the complete House for an impeachment vote -- will review the report; Democrats have already complained Hyde is seeking too much power.
Both Republican and Democratic leaders planned to address rank-and-file members this morning to update them on procedures for the report and get their blessing for the resolution which would allow for its immediate public release. The Rules Committee, which also will meet today, will draw up a resolution for the House to vote tomorrow on authorizing the release. Once the House assents, the document is expected immediately to be made public on the Internet through THOMAS, the congressional legislative Web site.
"They're starting from scratch and we're going a hundred miles an hour," explained one Democratic aide.
Throughout the day, the leadership endeavored to portray events as proceeding in a calm and nonpartisan manner. "We do not want to in any way time this report, to make it seem we're doing it for political reasons," said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman John Linder (R-Ga.).
But some Democrats questioned the timing of the independent counsel's delivery. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a fierce defender of the president, called it a "well orchestrated" strategy.
And Solomon indicated that his colleagues should expect to vote on whether to launch a formal impeachment inquiry of the president before they leave for the year.
"Before the Congress adjourns, there will be a decision made," he predicted.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company