House fails to agree on tape release Judiciary panel bogs down in partisanship, vows to decide today

'A very long, long day'

Line by line, members wrestle over material, grand jury testimony

September 18, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bogged down in partisan strife, the House Judiciary Committee failed to agree yesterday on the release of President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony and 2,700 additional pages of evidence from independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

The sharply divided committee, which would conduct any impeachment inquiry based on Starr's report, adjourned last night after nine hours of wrangling and promised to finish its work by noon today.

The material could be released to the public tomorrow, "in time for the weekend talk shows," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

But one of the panel's senior Republicans, Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, said release of the tape and other material related to the Monica Lewinsky scandal might not be possible until Tuesday.

The Government Printing Office -- which would have to make copies of the material for the press and the 435 members of the House -- will be closed all weekend and Monday, which is the Jewish New Year.

Yesterday's acrimony seemed to confirm a growing partisan rift that would undermine the credibility of an impeachment probe.

"The whole process has become very partisan," said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a senior Judiciary Committee Democrat.

Republicans characterized the day's struggle in far more optimistic terms. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde of Illinois spoke of "vigorous debate, passionate sometimes, cordial but spirited" at others.

But Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, a committee Republican, could only say that the panel would finish its work "hopefully sometime in the next 12 months."

"It was a very long, long day, and there were some very passionate arguments," said Barr, who was the first to call for an impeachment inquiry, even before the Lewinsky scandal broke.

The parties are deeply divided over how much additional material should be released to the House and the public to supplement Starr's explosive, 445-page report. The Judiciary Committee labored over 2,700 pages of appendixes, many containing sexually graphic material.

The pages contain portions of grand jury testimony by Lewinsky, a former White House intern; the president's secretary, Betty Currie; and the president's confidant, Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan.

Bitter argument

Committee lawyers had worked until 6 a.m. yesterday editing sections of the appendixes considered gratuitously graphic or that would needlessly embarrass people peripheral to the Lewinsky scandal. Committee members then plodded through those deletions one by one, arguing bitterly over which should be accepted and which should be overruled.

Republicans said they listened respectfully to Democratic concerns.

"I was sort of pleased with the tenor of the debate," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "We all got a chance to be lawyers."

But Democrats saw the proceedings very differently.

"We certainly did not get the impression they were paying any attention," said Frank. "They made it clear they were not even interested in debating the issues."

Republicans voted down 11 Democratic motions in the closed meeting, including a proposal to open the proceedings to the public.

Frank said Starr forwarded a letter yesterday to senior committee Democrats, asking them to maintain the secrecy of FBI agents and much of their testimony.

Adding to the president's jeopardy, Hyde won agreement yesterday from U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to release Clinton's videotaped deposition taken in January in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct suit. That lawsuit was dismissed, but the Judiciary Committee is trying to determine whether the president lied under oath in the Jones case or before the Starr grand jury.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, bitterly protested Hyde's request for the tape, saying neither he nor other Democrats had been consulted. He said he feared Clinton's testimony in the Jones case could prompt the committee to stray far afield from Starr's report.

Democrats contend GOP leaders are mounting a campaign to turn public opinion against the president before voting to formally convene impeachment proceedings.

"The Republican leadership realizes [that] to impeach the president, they need a president who is in worse shape with the public," Frank said. "The Republican Party has decided their role is to make the president look bad."

Republicans countered that some Democrats are stonewalling,

trying to keep information from the public that might be damaging but is vital for Americans to decide whether Clinton is fit for the office.

"The American people are entitled to be informed about the relevant facts," said Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, a committee Republican. "Some Democrats want to thwart the process."

Parties not united

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