President's support fades in Congress Opponents no longer fear backlash from release of Starr report

'Republicans smell blood'

Worried about elections, Democrats seek distance

September 06, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nervous Democrats and emboldened Republicans will return to the House this week from a monthlong recess to find a tectonic shift in the political landscape that threatens to swallow Bill Clinton's presidency.

No longer do Republicans fear a backlash from pressing for the possible impeachment of the president. And Democrats are increasingly willing to speak out against Clinton in the harshest possible terms.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and longtime Clinton ally, may have opened the floodgates Thursday when he took to the Senate floor to denounce the president's "immoral" and "disgraceful" behavior with Monica Lewinsky.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook all day based on Mr. Lieberman's speech," said Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, a New York Republican who is drafting a resolution on how the House should handle an investigatory report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, expected within weeks.

"It's an unbelievable shift" in public opinion.

Said Tom DeLay, the House Republican whip: "This is going to be the hottest fall I've ever spent in Washington."

The issues under debate may seem arcane: how widely to disseminate Starr's report, how quickly to proceed with an impeachment inquiry, which House committees will help shape that inquiry. But they add up to a concerted effort to finally force the presidential sex scandal toward a conclusion.

That could be ominous for the president, considering the graphic sexual details and the suggestions of perjury, witness tampering, obstruction of justice and abuse of power that Starr's report is thought to contain, said a House Democratic aide close to the Lewinsky investigation.

"Republicans smell blood," the aide said, "and they think they can finish Clinton off right here and now."

The changes in the political landscape over the past five week weeks have been dramatic. Consider that when the House adjourned July 31:

Republicans feared that Starr's report held more political peril than promise, and they hoped to keep the independent counsel's findings secret until after the November election. Now, members of both parties are clamoring for the public release of a potentially explosive report.

Republican leaders hoped to squelch any talk of impeachment proceedings and adjourn as soon as possible to begin campaigning for re-election. Now, several prominent Republicans are suggesting that the House stay in session perhaps through the fall to begin work on Starr's report and possibly launch an inquiry that could end the Clinton presidency.

Some Republicans were proposing that Congress merely censure the president, out of fear that Clinton's popularity with the public might make an impeachment inquiry perilous for their candidates. Now, some Democrats are suggesting a censure, while Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are saying that would be inadequate.

Democrats were predicting that they could recapture the House in the Nov. 3 election. Now, with 34 Senate Seats and all 435 seats in the House at stake, they fear that demoralized Democratic voters might stay away from the polls, leading to a rout. Political analysts expect the Republicans to score double-digit gains in the House and give them an outside chance at expanding their 55 seats in the Senate to a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats.

All this stems from Clinton's speech Aug. 17 in which he acknowledged an intimate relationship with Lewinsky but failed to apologize explicitly or to seem contrite enough to quell his critics.

The damage, for now, appears grave.

"There's no question things have changed," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican. "I know that in Arkansas [the scandal] was just not a topic that anyone discussed. Very few people expressed opinions on the allegations at all.

"But once the president made his speech, there were facts on the table that people could actually discuss."

Indeed, how best to respond to Starr's report has become the hottest debate on Capitol Hill.

Michael T. Leibig, a lawyer for several Secret Service agents who testified before Starr's grand jury, has sued to block the release of grand jury testimony to Congress; that suit has not been resolved. Such grand jury material is expected to be the core evidence undergirding Starr's report.

Still, Congress is feverishly preparing. Speaker Newt Gingrich; Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader; and other House leaders will meet Wednesday to review evolving plans for receiving the report.

In midsummer, Gingrich had suggested the appointment of a bipartisan commission to review Starr's evidence privately. After House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde persuaded Gingrich that his committee alone should handle the report, Hyde pushed for a change in House rules to restrict access to the report to Judiciary Committee members and selected staffers.

All that has changed.

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