Judiciary Committee vexed by party lines Bipartisanship is rare on House panel


WASHINGTON -- The name falls from their lips with uncharacteristic reverence, like ballplayers conjuring up Joe DiMaggio in Yankee Stadium.

"Rodino -- he did an extraordinary job," said Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, mentioning the subdued, even-handed chairman of the committee during the Watergate scandal. "He will be my role model."

Then Jackson-Lee, who is known for lengthy attacks on Republicans and their policies, added, "I will not venture into the muddy waters of partisanship."

Conventional wisdom, and recent history, seem to indicate otherwise. The House Judiciary Committee, which will conduct any formal impeachment inquiry against President Clinton, is known as the most polarized and ideologically split panel on Capitol Hill. Peter W. Rodino Jr. may have had a core of 10 moderates to depend on to steer his course, but the current chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, can count his on one hand.

The polarization is no coincidence.

As Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York liberal, said, the committee's agenda attracts extremes.

"It's a very bifurcated committee," Nadler said. "You get people who are interested in abortion and civil rights and due process. They tend not to be the moderates."

The committee regularly grapples with an assortment of divisive issues, including affirmative action, tort overhaul, crime, terrorism and same-sex marriages. Though the debates are usually civil, party-line votes are the norm among the 21 Republicans and 16 Democrats; bipartisanship is the exception. What's more, the panel is stocked with both the president's harshest critics and his most unswerving supporters.

There is Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, who asserts that Clinton has so debased the presidency that last year, even before Monica Lewinsky became news, he filed a resolution to impeach him.

Barr also introduced a bill to prohibit the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. Barr, who has been divorced twice, said at the time, "The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundation of our society: the family unit."

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the committee's senior Democrat and its only Watergate veteran, has been almost as severe a critic of Kenneth Starr as Barr is of Clinton.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, is a nimble debater who is quick with a quip and prone to impatience for what he considers poor displays of intellect. Frank, who is expected to play a forceful role in the proceedings, is also the brother of Ann Lewis, the White House communications director.

Another much-talked-about figure on the committee is Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat, considered a formidable legal presence by his peers on the committee. Reserved and politically astute, Berman has forged a close relationship with Hyde, the committee chairman.

On the other side of the aisle, two bookish Florida Republicans loom as central players: Rep. Bill McCollum, who has said perjury will constitute an impeachable offense, and Rep. Charles T. Canady, a constitutional expert who heads the subcommittee that has proposed more amendments to the Constitution than anyone since James Madison.

Republicans, eager to quell criticism about the panel's membership, recently appointed their first woman, Rep. Mary Bono of California, who won the seat held by her late husband, Sonny. The Republican wing also includes several former judges and federal prosecutors, who are likely to step back into those roles in any hearings.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who expressed "shock" at the Starr report but urged his colleagues to be cautious about not prejudging the president, was once a U.S. attorney in Arkansas. And Rep. Ed Bryant, another Republican, was U.S. attorney in Tennessee.

Despite the credentials on both sides -- only three members did not go to law school -- there is little question that the Democrats on the committee are considerably flashier and more experienced in the political arena than their Republican counterparts. The committee's Republicans, while no less zealous in their views, are largely a little less quick on their feet, a little more lawyerly in their demeanor.

Having so many lawyers in one room is both fortunate and unfortunate. "Lawyers tend to be more contentious and argumentative, and that can show up," said Canady. "But our legal background will be helpful in making a judgment."

Both sides have hired experienced chief counsels accustomed to gritty battlegrounds of a separate sort. David Schippers, the Republican counsel, is a lifelong Chicago Democrat who put the mobster Sam Giancana in prison. On the Democratic side is Abbe Lowell, a Washington insider who has defended a roster of scandal-tainted clients, including former House Speaker Jim Wright.

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