House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has been taking heavy fire--even from his own party--for his proposal to bar minors from seeing obscene or violent books, movies and video games.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Entertainment Industry Task Force, argues that such a ban would include a lot of bestsellers, including most all books on slavery or the Holocaust.

At a news conference yesterday, Foley ratcheted up the rhetoric, distributing a list of 50 classics that might be banned, including: Dante's "'Inferno' (depicts torture)," Homer's "'Illiad' and 'Odyssey' (depicts sadism)," Edgar Allan Poe's "'The Pit and the Pendulum' (depicts torture)" and Hansel and Gretel "(depicts sadism)." Not to mention movies such as "Home Alone," where that dreadful kid endlessly tortures the robbers.

Hyde has backed away from an earlier provision requiring all retailers to hand out the complete lyrics to all CDs in their stores to anyone who demands them. Critics have said this would be costly because typical music stores carry perhaps 1 million or so tunes. What's more, it's unclear that having the lyrics to Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata"--presumably translated--would really help.

Besides, that requirement would take the mystery out of rock 'n roll classics like "Louie, Louie," and end such family-friendly debates as whether Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" goes: "Smoke on the water, fire in the sky." Or says, more mystically, as one author believes: "Slow walking Walter, the fire engine guy."

Unhatching Bench Warmers

Taking a step to fill dozens of vacancies on the federal bench, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing of the year today on President Clinton's judicial nominees: two appeals and six trial court nominees.

Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) had suspended hearings for months while waiting to hear whether Clinton would name political friend and Utah attorney Ted Stewart, whose possible nomination has been protested by environmental groups. The White House still hasn't said whether it will give Stewart a judgeship, but it hasn't closed the door on that possibility. Hatch appears willing to process some nominees as long as the White House remains open to a judgeship for his pal.

Of course, getting hearings is but a small step toward confirmation. There's still the committee vote as well as action in the full Senate, where political agendas beyond Hatch's and Clinton's await.

The Cable Heard Round the World

Foreign Service director general Edward W. "Skip" Gnehm Jr. thought he was doing a good deed by telling some 40 career ambassadors well in advance that they might be rotating out a bit earlier--in some cases several months earlier--than the normal three-year tour.

Might as well have lobbed a grenade into their embassies. Though many ambassadors are said to have thanked him for the heads-up, the cable sparked a mini-uproar--along with whining about "special considerations"--and sent our fax machine buzzing.

Gnehm's cable acknowledges "the grapevine is active with speculation" about the timing of the rotations. The department's feeling was that it's been taking longer and longer to move nominees through the selection process and, with the 2000 elections coming, it would be best to move up the State Department's selection schedule by a few months so people could be confirmed for the 2000 ambassadorial cycle. That means, though no final decisions have been made, incumbents should plan to leave in the summer of 2000.

Problem is, many of the 40 didn't make it overseas until late 1997--because of nomination process delays--and a couple didn't make it until early 1998.

Politics? Trying to get career people selected during a Democratic administration in place for another cycle?

Gnehm, a career officer himself, insists there's no nefarious partisanship afoot.

"I'm the one who did it, who wrote the cable," he said yesterday. "It was my idea . . . based on a premise that it's better to think way ahead, to plan. I'm sorry I upset people . . . but it had to be done. I honestly thought I was doing everyone a favor" by letting them know this far in advance.

Probably so. Gives everyone more time to lobby against the moves.

Grilling Holbrooke: Rare, Medium or Well Done

Speaking of ambassadors, the administration is calling on the heavy hitters to prep diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke for his confirmation hearings, starting Thursday, as ambassador to the United Nations. The Clintonites have assembled a veteran team for his "Murder Board" to grill him on questions the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is likely to ask.

On the board are: White House deputy chief of staff Steve Ricchetti; the State Department's top congressional liaison, Barbara Larkin; former State chief of staff Tom Donilon; Holbrooke's lawyer and former diplomat Richard Beattie; and top Democratic political strategist Michael Berman.

After Lunch, They'll Hear About Gas

This just in from the House: "Dear Colleague: The Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus is pleased to inform you that the Joint Steering Committee for Public Policy will host a luncheon briefing on Wednesday, June 16, at noon in B-339 Rayburn. The topic of the briefing will be 'Nitric Oxide: The Serious Side of Laughing Gas.' "

Just a whiff of this stuff turns you into Henry A. Kissinger.