Clinton videotape release near Democrats complain

White House braces for embarrassment

September 16, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans prepared yesterday to release President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony, brushing aside Democrats' complaints that disclosure of Clinton's statements about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky is designed solely to embarrass him.

With Democrats conceding they do not have the votes to stop the tape from being made public, the White House braced itself for another major embarrassment: a television-ready view of the president evading questions, giving ambiguous answers and angrily lashing out at sexually graphic questions from prosecutors from the independent counsel's office.

"The public has the right to see [the president] in action," declared Rep. George W. Gekas of Pennsylvania, a senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which is reviewing documents related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

House Judiciary Committee members have been put on notice that they could be pulled into a secret session today -- but probably tomorrow -- to decide whether to release more documents provided by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, including the videotape of Clinton's combative testimony Aug. 17.

The videotape -- which was turned over to Congress on Friday with Starr's report on possible grounds for impeachment and reams of other material -- could be released this week.

The dispute over the videotape came as the GOP timetable for reviewing Starr's charges against the president seemed to be accelerating rapidly.

Speaker Newt Gingrich announced yesterday that he plans to recess the House next month for the Nov. 2 election. Usually, the House is adjourned for the year before fall elections, but a recess would allow him to call members back to Washington for impeachment proceedings.

Gingrich said he "will specifically instruct the Judiciary Committee to come back shortly after the election," a strong indication, according to committee aides, that House GOP leaders favor an impeachment inquiry.

The videotape fight brought simmering partisan anger to the surface just days after House leaders appealed to members to cooperate on the investigation of the White House sex scandal.

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, angered Democrats when he introduced a resolution to force the president to repay the $4.4 million cost of Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky matter. And Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee took to the House floor to say that Clinton lied and must come clean, only to be silenced by Illinois Rep. Thomas W. Ewing, a Republican who was presiding over the House.

Gingrich had warned all members last week to refrain from personal attacks on Clinton from the House floor. But bickering occurred as often between party colleagues as between Democrats and Republicans.

Rep. John Conyers, lead Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, dispatched another panel Democrat, Maxine Waters of California, to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's office to protest a Gephardt statement critical of the president's legal evasions.

Republican conservatives protested suggestions from GOP moderates that a punishment short of impeachment might be desirable.

Concerned by the rancor, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, a Judiciary Committee member, appealed for a more measured approach to the potential impeachment of the president.

"If this devolves into a partisan witch hunt, we will let the whole country down," said Lofgren, who is researching the precedent for what would be the third presidential impeachment proceeding in U.S. history.

Release of the videotape is part of an effort by Republicans to move the investigation forward in time for a vote within weeks on whether to convene formal impeachment hearings.

According to Starr, the president was evasive, testy and untruthful before the grand jury on Aug. 17 when confronted with detailed questions about his sexual behavior.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, which would handle any impeachment proceedings, say a transcript of the testimony -- without the embarrassing pictures -- would provide all the detail needed to determine whether Clinton lied under oath before the grand jury.

"I will stand firmly to oppose such outrageous evidence of a witch hunt," fumed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, one of the committee's staunchest Democrats. "It is folly. It is political."

Democrats also fear that images of an embarrassed, cringing president could be used by Republicans in campaign commercials during fall elections.

But Republicans say only the videotape will convey to members of Congress and the public the nuances of Clinton's statement that support Starr's allegation of perjury. Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican and committee conservative, said Clinton's demeanor and intonation could be more revealing than his words.

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