Panel Seeks New Powers for Clinton Probe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 1998; Page A08
The House Judiciary Committee is asking for unprecedented powers exempting the panel from many longstanding House rules as it reviews President Clinton's conduct in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, congressional sources said, a move opposed by Democrats and greeted warily by some Republicans.
As the two parties began negotiating in earnest yesterday for the first time over how to handle independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report of possible impeachable offenses, sources said the Judiciary Republicans are requesting a broad mandate that could even allow the panel to cite witnesses for contempt without having to secure a vote of the full House to do so.
But Democrats are already complaining about what one called "nearly unchecked powers," and some leading Republicans are concerned about giving Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) the authority he wants to handle the Starr report in a way that would give his committee wide latitude to proceed in its investigation without input from the rest of the House.
This early skirmishing indicates how contentious congressional consideration of Starr's report is likely to be, and has begun even before lawmakers have a sense of what it will contain. In a sign of the high-level concern over the brewing procedural battle, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) spoke for the first time yesterday about the matter and agreed to meet in person next week.
Hyde's demand for broad powers sets the stage for a possible floor fight when the House returns to work next week. The resolution of this confrontation over process could affect public confidence in Congress, which is determined to review Starr's findings even as polls indicate the majority of Americans want to put the matter to rest. If it devolves into a partisan brawl, or even bickering among various camps of Republicans, it could undermine lawmakers' ability to be seen as capable of carrying out what a Gephardt aide yesterday called "among the most serious responsibilities Congress will undertake."
Republicans said they need to give the Judiciary Committee new authority so it can expedite the review of Starr's report, but there are already sharp divisions over how much power to cede to Hyde. House Rules Committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), whose committee is writing the resolution governing the treatment of the Starr report, said he supported granting Hyde some of what he wants in order to prevent the session from dragging on unnecessarily.
"There's almost a constitutional crisis here now and we can't bring this Congress to a standstill and not deal with unfinished legislation," Solomon said in an interview yesterday. "We need to get down to business."
But Solomon and other Republicans may not accede to all of Hyde's requests, and Solomon said yesterday he will grant "damn few" exceptions to current House rules.
"I want the resolution to track the procedures that previous proceedings have had," he said. "We certainly don't want to be setting a bad precedent."
Democrats say they have been all but frozen out of the debate. "It is greatly disappointing that the leadership, through Gingrich and the Rules Committee, has excluded the Democrats from discussions on the rules up until this point and by all indications, their proposals are to give Judiciary Committee Republicans nearly unchecked powers," said Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). "This is the first sign of the politicization of the process."
Despite that rhetoric, there were some signs yesterday that House leaders will attempt to defuse a partisan fight when they meet next week.
On Thursday, Gephardt complained in an interview about the lack of consultation and the GOP's unwillingness to approve a contract for the Democrats' chief investigator. "It's just the lack of communication that's always the problem," Gephardt said then. "If you're going to work with people, then you have to talk to them."
But yesterday morning Gephardt spoke by phone with Gingrich, according to Gephardt spokeswoman Laura Nichols, and "the speaker pledged Democrats would be partners in the decision-making process."
Gephardt, Gingrich and Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) will meet with Hyde and Conyers for a briefing on procedures for examining Starr's findings, Nichols said. A GOP leadership aide who asked not to be identified emphasized that the leaders will attend the meeting "to receive a status update, not to make a decision."
"The speaker emphasized he wanted the process to remain bipartisan, though Henry Hyde remains in charge of this," the aide said.
One of the most potentially significant procedural fights has centered on whether any portion of the Starr report will be disclosed to all 435 members and the public. Solomon announced yesterday that while the Judiciary Committee will have "sole jurisdiction" over the report, the House will release an executive summary to all lawmakers. That marked a defeat for the Judiciary panel, most of whose members from both parties were initially opposed to releasing any of the independent counsel's findings.
Hyde and his staff are attempting to sketch out his committee's role in handling matters that are expected to arise because of Starr's report, ranging from how to treat sensitive grand jury information to who can interview witnesses in the investigation.
According to informed sources, the GOP is exploring such options as creating a new subcommittee specifically to conduct the probe and ensuring that the Judiciary Committee's counsel, not the House counsel, litigates any legal questions arising from an investigation.
Republicans are exploring allowing the panel to cite a witness who refuses to testify for contempt of Congress without taking a House vote on the question, they said, but this may not be possible legally. Adopting some Watergate procedures, the Judiciary plan would allow Hyde and Conyers to review some of the confidential material themselves and enable Hyde to appeal directly to the House as a whole for more funding and authority.
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