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Impeachment Hearings May Be Scaled Back

Hyde House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde. (Reuters)

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  • By Juliet Eilperin and John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, November 5, 1998; Page A1

    House Republican leaders began moving yesterday to bring a quick end to the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton in the aftermath of midterm elections that provided an unexpected boost to Democrats around the nation.

    In private discussions with fellow lawmakers yesterday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) outlined a scaled-down plan in which the panel would call just a single major witness -- independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr -- and then vote on articles of impeachment by Thanksgiving, according to sources privy to the proposal.

    Under this procedure, the sources said, the committee would abandon plans to take testimony from central players such as presidential confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Oval Office secretary Betty Currie, instead summoning only Starr for two days of questioning beginning Nov. 19. Otherwise, sources said, Hyde envisioned only possible staff presentations and legal discussion about the significance of taking an oath, as Clinton did before denying his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.

    A Starr appearance on Capitol Hill could be quite a spectacle, with the prosecutor forced to defend his four-year investigation. But Hyde, according to one source, assured GOP colleagues that Starr would be an impressive witness, comparing Democrats to a dog that chases a car without figuring out "what happens when you catch it."

    Either way, the truncated schedule amounted to a dramatic concession to public demands for resolution of the Lewinsky scandal, a message many in both parties took from Tuesday's surprising election results. As a GOP source said yesterday, the reasoning behind the latest proposal could be summed up by a simple phrase: "Just get it done."

    But aides last night emphasized that Hyde's plans were still tentative. "Hyde may very well call witnesses [in addition to Starr] at a later point and has not committed to a Thanksgiving deadline," spokesman Paul McNulty said.

    Even as they were privately revising their approach, Republican leaders publicly insisted the election should not affect impeachment. "The committee continues to have a clear constitutional duty to complete its work in a fair and expeditious manner," Hyde said in a statement. "This was just as true before the election as it is today. Our duty has not changed because the Constitution has not changed."

    Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told reporters: "I don't think the Founding Fathers ever had in mind the idea that we should take a major constitutional duty and reduce it to the level of who can spin best. I think that would be a derogation."

    But reflecting the divisions within the party, other Republicans were more outspoken in their assessment of the postelection politics of impeachment. "What impeachment?" conservative Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) asked sardonically. "There aren't the votes to move impeachment if all we have in front of us is the information we have now."

    And congressional Democrats eagerly seized on the results. "If there was ever any doubt, this election has made it clear the American people do not want President Clinton impeached and to misread that elementary message is really kamikaze politics," senior Judiciary Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) said.

    At the White House, Clinton and his top aides were consciously muted in an effort to avoid crowing. While celebrating the results, the president tried to cast them in terms of his policies by summoning reporters into the Cabinet Room before a meeting on Social Security.

    "The message the American people sent was loud and clear: We want progress over partisanship and unity over division," Clinton said. Asked about impeachment, he demurred. "That's in the hands of Congress and the American people."

    In promoting his back-to-business approach, Clinton announced a White House conference on Social Security Dec. 8-9. In the same vein, new White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta installed his team yesterday, appointing former White House lobbyist Steve Ricchetti as his deputy, recruiting White House labor aide Karen Tramantano to be his counselor and promoting counselor Douglas B. Sosnik to senior adviser.

    Various advisers said the president's passive posture was not merely a pose. "No one down here is feeling smug or satisfied about the results," said White House special counsel Gregory B. Craig, who is leading the president's defense team. "The cloud of the impeachment inquiry still hangs over this building and this president."

    The White House appraisal is that, despite what Clinton viewed as a clear repudiation of impeachment, there is no point in discussing alternative resolutions to the Lewinsky controversy while the GOP leadership is in disarray. "They own it up there," a senior White House adviser said of the inquiry. "Whether they like it or not, whether we like it or not -- right now it's up there."

    In exit polls, most voters expressed impatience with the controversy; 63 percent opposed impeachment and 58 percent said Congress should drop the matter without hearings. Moreover, 49 percent opposed even the idea of a nonbinding congressional censure resolution, compared with 43 percent who favored it, a striking number because previous polls had shown far stronger support for some form of reprimand.

    A few weeks ago, the White House informally used intermediaries to shop around Capitol Hill for a "censure-plus" deal to avoid impeachment, such as a large fine or an appearance in the Capitol to accept the nation's remonstrations. But the election results now may embolden Clinton to resist even that.

    And many Republicans remain philosophically opposed to censure as well. "We want a strong president in this country," said Judiciary member Chris Cannon (R-Utah). "Even if you dislike a president's policies, you want a strong president. You either impeach or you vindicate."

    During a morning call among House GOP leaders, several top Republicans said they should not change their tack on impeachment, but Gingrich did not address the matter, according to sources. Within hours, Hyde was on the phone with Conyers and separately his fellow Republican committee members detailing his plans.

    Just days ago, Republicans were planning to take depositions from key players including Jordan, Currie, White House deputy counsel Bruce R. Lindsey and Clinton personal attorney Robert S. Bennett. Now there will be no such depositions and instead the committee will ask the White House to stipulate to many of the facts collected by Starr during his investigation, an idea Clinton advisers have been unwilling to accept.

    In addition to Starr's Nov. 19 appearance, the committee could hear from a witness or two on Nov. 16 to talk about the importance of taking an oath to tell the truth. Instead of the Dec. 31 deadline Hyde previously talked about, he now wants to wrap up by Thanksgiving on Nov. 26.

    The abbreviated timetable may put some lawmakers in an awkward position. At the time the House approved an open-ended impeachment inquiry last month, many members justified their votes by saying the allegations in Starr's report would plainly be impeachable offenses if proven, and that extensive fact-finding and hearings would be needed. Now members may be asked to reach judgments on basically the same facts they had a month ago.

    And some Republicans said the impeachment process was being called to a close prematurely. "I just don't see it ending," said Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.). "I don't see how the Judiciary Committee can allow its duty to be shaped by the election results."

    Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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