Both parties eye revamping rules for special prosecutor Law governing scope of counsel's powers expires in June '99

March 20, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even as they wage war over the tactics of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, members of Congress from both parties are quietly moving to ensure that Starr-like inquiries will soon be relegated to the history books.

The statute that governs the appointment and conduct of the independent counsel expires in June 1999, and few in Congress are willing to defend its breadth and scope. The question now is not whether the law will be changed but how drastically.

"It could be eliminated altogether," ventured House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican with jurisdiction over the issue. "More likely, you'll see a lot of modifications."

With Starr's probe still dominating the news, only the most partisan members have made independent-prosecutor reform a public crusade.

Forty-one conservative members of the House yesterday fired off a letter urging Attorney General Janet Reno to denounce attacks on Starr and to allow the independent prosecutor "to carry out his duties without harassment."

But a cross-section of members is backing efforts to limit the scope, length and budgets of independent-counsel investigations, while establishing a judicial body to police prosecutorial conduct.

Congress enacted the 1978 law in the wake of Watergate, when members believed the public would not accept the judgment of a government prosecutor appointed by the president's attorney general to investigate top officials in the executive branch.

Resources are vast

That suspicion still remains, but two decades of experience have tempered the enthusiasm. Once appointed, an independent counsel has enormous latitude and virtually limitless resources to pursue an investigation wherever it may lead.

"I've always been a critic," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican. The independent counsels are "not circumscribed in their jurisdiction, and frankly, their whole setup is constitutionally unsound."

"It will not be renewed in the form it's in," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's senior Democrat. An independent counsel is "not accountable to anyone. Even Joseph McCarthy was accountable to his electorate."

The debate over Starr's conduct has heated up significantly since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott implored the special prosecutor recently to wrap up his investigation of the Monica Lewinsky matter. Republicans, including Lott himself, quickly distanced themselves from that sentiment, instead blaming White House obfuscation for the plodding pace of Starr's 3 1/2 -year, $40 million probe.

But misgivings are growing. House Judiciary Committee members expect Starr to refer the Lewinsky investigation to Congress, rather than indicting or clearing the president on his own.

That referral could come as early as May, either to the committee or a bipartisan panel specifically appointed to review documents, audiotapes and thousands of pages of testimony in the glare of )) an election year. The review could be the first step toward impeachment proceedings.

It is a job Rep. James E. Rogan, a California Republican, seems to relish. "This has zero fallout for me politically, and it wouldn't matter to me if it did," he said. "If anything, we're politically champing at the bit to take on this president wherever he may be vulnerable."

That view is not widely held, conceded Hatch, especially among Republicans in swing districts who hope to avoid overt partisanship in an election year. Even outspoken conservatives have their misgivings.

"The lawyer in me feels the challenge. The citizen-slash-congressman in me doesn't relish this," said South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, a former Air Force prosecutor recently brought to the Judiciary Committee. "There's no winners here."

"I'm not looking forward to this at all," said Rep. Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican who represents President Clinton's hometowns of Hope and Hot Springs. "I have Bill Clinton's friends and family members and teachers in my district. But it's not just me. I know we're all shuddering."

Those shudders may be enough to force Democrats and Republicans into a truce over the independent-counsel issue. In the late 1980s, Republicans seethed at independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's conduct as he pursued the Reagan administration's Iran-contra scandal into the George Bush years.

In 1994, House Republicans led by Hyde tried to rein in the independent prosecutor's scope with legislation that would impose time and budgetary limits on such probes. But Democrats, including Clinton, refused to back the bill. The independent-counsel statute was extended overwhelmingly, with only minor changes, leading to the appointment of Starr.

Now that both parties have felt the counsel's lash, the time is ripe for change, say critics of the statute. A top Republican staff member on the Senate Government Reform Committee predicted a straight extension would not receive a single vote.

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