Republicans cautiously prepare for Starr's report in light of polls

March 23, 1998|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders in Congress are trying to figure out how to handle any report from Special Counsel Kenneth Starr on the Monica Lewinsky case. The answer should be very carefully.

A report from the special prosecutor ordinarily would go to the House Judiciary Committee, which would be charged with deciding whether to recommend to the House as a whole that President Clinton should be impeached. The beauty of that arrangement is that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee is not some yahoo ideologue but instead a highly respected conservative from Illinois, Henry Hyde.

But Speaker Newt Gingrich seems to want to involve other high-ranking members of the House. He is talking about creating an ad hoc group that would go through the Starr material and decide whether it merits any further attention. The speaker also has suggested the creation of some blue-ribbon committee to replace Judiciary in deciding on impeachment, although he has backed away from that idea since Mr. Hyde objected.

Congressional shuffle

For Republicans, the first requirement for any course of action would be to avoid even the slightest hint of partisanship that would reinforce Hillary Rodham Clinton's claim that the whole Whitewater investigation is the product of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." The recognition of that danger lies behind Mr. Gingrich's tentative decision to include Democrats on any ad hoc group.

The Republican leaders should understand that they must do more than avoid overt partisanship if they decide to go ahead with hearings on impeachment before the Judiciary Committee. The essential element of any impeachment, should it come to that, would be the willingness of at least a substantial minority of Democrats to go along with the Republicans who now control Congress.

There is precedent for that kind of realism. When the Democrats then running Congress were faced with whether to impeach President Richard M. Nixon 25 years ago, they made it clear from the outset that they would act only when there was a substantially bipartisan consensus. And that is just what they achieved, forcing Nixon to resign rather than try to win an impeachment trial in the Senate.

No Watergate

There is, of course, a world of difference between the accusations against Mr. Clinton and the case laid out against Nixon before the Judiciary Committee under chairman Peter J. Rodino. In that instance, there was convincing evidence of felonies committed by the president and his leading advisers in their attempt to cover up the White House role in the Watergate burglary.

By contrast, in this case the committee would be judging whether Mr. Clinton either committed perjury himself or tried to persuade others to perjure themselves about a crime that, although serious, would be relatively trivial. Even in the Watergate case, the Republicans who finally voted for articles of impeachment did so only after weeks of agonizing and with obvious reluctance.

At the moment, all of this discussion of the pros and cons of impeachment seems premature at best and probably fanciful. Based on what is known now, Mr. Clinton might be easy to convict of egregious bad taste but hardly of "high crimes and misdemeanors." Unless Mr. Starr has an ace up his sleeve, there is no witness to Mr. Clinton conducting a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky or sexually harassing Kathleen Willey.

The political caution lights are also obvious because of the way the public has reacted to the disclosures so far. In the Watergate case, Americans had come to accept the evidence of serious official misconduct, but this time the message of the opinion polls is that they don't want Mr. Clinton forced out of office because of his personal life.

Political decision

The first question is whether Mr. Starr's report on the president is one that demands action in the House even if there is no basis for a grand jury to indict Mr. Clinton or anyone acting in his behalf. But the last thing the Republicans need is for the voters to decide they are just playing politics as usual.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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