By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
In Congress, which tends to deliberate long-windedly over minutiae, the arrival of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on President Clinton's misdeeds with Monica S. Lewinsky has accelerated the House's legislative velocity up to the equivalent of warp speed.
A little more than 24 hours after the report showed up in front of the Capitol steps, the House Rules Committee adopted a resolution to release about 500 pages of the report. The vote on the resolution by the full House is expected to take place this morning, and the report is due to appear on the Internet almost instantaneously.
"It's a sobering feeling. What for a long time was a 'maybe,' and for a few weeks was a 'probably,' is now a certainty," said Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), a junior member of the House Judiciary Committee, which will receive custody of the report today. "It doesn't look like we're going to have the luxury of putting our feet up for two or three weeks and looking at the report."
Probably not. The national nausea prompted by the Lewinsky affair is sure to get a fresh jolt over the weekend as the public and Congress try to digest the report. More clamor will result, and more action will need to be taken.
Yesterday, lawmakers tried to prepare. Things seemed to go smoothly for the Republicans. At their morning meeting, members handily marched through four topics: the legislative agenda, the Rules Committee resolution, the expected Judiciary Committee deliberations and the need to keep from gloating at Democratic discomfiture and from calling the president dirty names.
"Members engaging in debate must abstain from language personally offensive toward the president," said Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as he opened the House a bit later. This language, he said, included "references to various types of unethical behavior," "references to criminal conduct" and "extraneous material personally abusive to the president."
But the Republicans couldn't hide the new spring in their step. As House and Senate leaders gathered in the afternoon to discuss tax cuts and other plans for the remainder of the session, Gingrich was in a playful mood and went out of his way to joke with reporters.
When asked whether he thought that a brewing showdown between the Republicans and the White House over taxes might distract attention from Clinton's problems, Gingrich grinned and said: "I'm confident you guys will decide what to cover."
As a service to colleagues, Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), who long ago suggested that Clinton resign, made available in his office a large loose-leaf binder full of Web site printouts, news clips, court testimony and other guidance on impeachment procedures.
"Let me make it absolutely clear that I am in no way advocating at this time that the House undertake a specific course of action," a cover letter said. But the next section, called "censure," damned this option as a "sham," and the ensuing section, titled "civil perjury," contained a long riff on the seriousness of lying and provided a few suggested samples from Clinton's deposition in Paula Jones's sexual harassment suit.
But the man of the hour, at least for the hundreds of reporters roaming the Capitol grounds, was Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the white-haired wise man who was to be entrusted with the Starr report, its dissemination and its consequences.
Hyde, an expert at saying nothing with a smile and making it sound good, told reporters at 10 a.m. that he had been meeting "almost constantly" with Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.) and planned to "proceed with all deliberate speed." He did not say where.
During the morning he talked with Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and committee lawyers several times, aides said. At 2 p.m. White House chief counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, Clinton's personal lawyer David Kendall and deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta showed up, presumably to plead for a sneak preview of the report. Ruff and company said virtually nothing when they left a half-hour later. Hyde never left his office.
Well, a reporter asked while waiting for something to happen, what's the chairman doing?
"He voted at noon," said committee spokesman Sam Stratman. "Then he ate lunch."
"What did he have?" someone asked, not in jest.
"He had a salad," Stratman said.
Among the Democrats, things weren't so cheerful. During their morning meeting, members said later, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) challenged colleagues to behave themselves in hopes of presenting a welcome contrast to their usually more volatile GOP rivals.
Black Caucus members complained, though, that Democrats weren't being aggressive enough in their defense of Clinton, the members said. But Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) reminded the caucus that the party could take a horrible bath during the November elections if things kept getting worse.
And over on the other side of the Capitol, Democratic senators were walking on eggshells after meeting with Clinton at the White House. Yes, said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), it was "a good meeting, a very constructive meeting, a candid meeting."
"Did he now trust the president?" someone asked.
"I accept the president's apology, and I think my colleagues do, as well," Daschle said.
Gephardt at midmorning said that "there was a deep feeling" among Democrats that Clinton ought to get an early peek at the Starr report before the Judiciary Committee puts it on the Internet.
"If the Republicans want to be nonpartisan they may be persuaded to give the president some reasonable period of time," Gephardt said. "Forty-eight hours seems reasonable."
Republicans weren't interested. Solomon noted that Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the dean of the House and routinely one of the loudest opposition voices in Congress, had written an op-ed piece for Thursday's New York Times calling for the immediate release of all 2,500 pages of the Starr report.
"Your own caucus is divided over this issue," Solomon told Rules Committee ranking minority member John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), with an innocent droop of his eyebrows. Moakley, ordinarily a gleeful and willing adversary, kept his counsel.
But it was at the Rules Committee, ordinarily a place for rough-and-tumble partisan combat and hard-nosed joshing between colleagues, that the fun stopped. Thursday, Solomon noted, as he opened the meeting that would begin to decide the fate of the Clinton presidency, was not an ordinary day.
"Today is a very grave day for the House of Representatives," Solomon said. "Today we do what we must do under the Constitution, not because we want to but because it is our duty."
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