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On Defensive, Hill GOP Weighs Strategy For Clinton Inquiry

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 1998; Page A08

Thrown on the defensive for the first time since President Clinton acknowledged in August that he had misled the nation about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, congressional Republicans sought yesterday to refocus their political and public relations strategy for handling a likely inquiry that could lead to the president's impeachment.

After a week in which the White House and congressional Democrats appeared to regain their footing, Republicans are second-guessing not only the decision to release the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony, but the pre-release suggestions by some of their colleagues who suggested it would be devastating to the president.

Privately, many Republicans also worry that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who earlier had insisted he would play a secondary role to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), has taken on too much of a public role and allowed Democrats to make him the target of their attacks.

"The speaker has got to learn to lay low and recognize that [the impeachment debate] is so charged that, even when he utters something as an aside, it reverberates across the country," said a Republican with close ties to Capitol Hill.

Republicans fear that their congressional leadership does not have a clear plan for managing the public side of the impeachment inquiry and that their failure has given the Democrats an opportunity to rally their voters in the final month of the midterm election campaign.

"I think they're doing it on a day-to-day basis," one strategist said of the GOP leadership. "Politically it's pretty clear what the White House is trying to do, which is to make this a referendum between Clinton and Gingrich. That's better than they had two weeks ago."

Congressional Democrats, said another GOP strategist, have found a way to deplore the president's behavior while rallying to his side by claiming the process in the House is unfair. "Our message is more confused," he said. "The Democrats found a unifying theme. We have not. But we will."

Several Republicans interviewed yesterday argued that White House successes last week will not last and that once the House moves from debates over procedural matters affecting the Judiciary Committee to the question of whether to launch a formal impeachment inquiry, the pendulum will shift back in their favor.

"That will be the moment of truth, and I believe you'll see a bunch of [Democrats] vote for the inquiry," said one operative. "They're either going to have to say that [Clinton's] conduct was such that an inquiry isn't warranted or it is. It washes away a lot of the process arguments and sets the tone" for the midterm campaign.

But he acknowledged that the events of the past week were unsettling for the GOP. "You go through a bit of a beating for a week and it has the effect of causing people to reevaluate where we're heading," another Republican strategist said yesterday.

House Republicans talked about the problems during a leadership meeting yesterday afternoon. One GOP source said there is now a greater recognition that party leaders must play not only to their most loyal supporters, who want Clinton impeached, but to swing voters who are tired of the scandal and of partisan backbiting in Washington.

"There is a widespread recognition among our members that this is going to seesaw back and forth," said one leadership aide. "I don't see among our members much less confidence." He credited that confidence to the fact that "almost all of our members are doing very well in their own campaign environment."

But outside strategists said Republicans should not be complacent in correcting their mistakes. These strategists said Republicans must find a way to appear more reasonable and fair to the Democratic minority in the House. Recognizing that the Judiciary Committee Democrats are more liberal than the Democratic caucus as a whole, they said GOP leaders still must bend over backwards to accommodate the other side.

Second, these strategists said, the party must avoid talk about expanding any impeachment inquiry beyond Starr's report, which focuses entirely on the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, unless they know for certain what they intend to do.

GOP leaders, including Hyde yesterday, have suggested they could expand the probe to include elements of Starr's Whitewater investigation, the administration's decision to sell satellite technology to China, or other matters. Strategists said that, in the absence of hard evidence, the talk of expanding the probe plays into Democratic charges that the Republicans are looking for any excuse to attack the president.

The emergence of Gingrich as a Democratic target, say some Republicans, was inevitable. But they also gripe that the speaker unwittingly made it easy for the White House and the president's allies to try to shift the focus to him.

Last week, as talk of a deal to censure the president swirled around Washington, Hyde was asked about the rumors. He said any such decision was above his pay grade. His defenders say he was trying to say that would be a decision for the Senate. The next morning, however, Gingrich stepped forward to slap down the talk of a censure deal. The White House responded by contending that Gingrich, not Hyde, was in charge of the impeachment strategy.

"Let's be honest, there were a few moments that were seized upon by the speaker's opponents," said a sympathetic congressional Republican. "They put a few points on the board. But it is not the end of the game."

But another Republican took more pessimistic view. "The speaker has to be willing to become comfortable being in the background and out of the spotlight, and when he is in the spotlight being nothing but statesmanlike," he said. "To extent that there is a bad cop in the leadership, let it be [Majority Whip] Tom DeLay [R-Tex.]."

Gingrich press secretary Christina Martin said the speaker had simply repeated earlier statements on censure. But she said that after last week's events, Gingrich planned "to renew his focus to communicate Republican ideas. . . . Henry Hyde has the charge on the inquiry."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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