Hyde yields on file review Bipartisan legal team and other concessions offered to Democrats

Concerns about fairness

But chairman calls Clinton impeachment hearings inevitable

September 29, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bowing to public concerns about fairness, the House Judiciary Committee chairman announced yesterday that a bipartisan legal team will review 20 boxes of evidence that Kenneth W. Starr did not send to Congress with his report on President Clinton.

"The Democrats want to see what's over there," Chairman Henry J. Hyde said of material related to the Clinton investigation that remains in the files of the independent counsel. "They have a lurking suspicion that there may be exculpatory material, and so we're going to accommodate them."

The decision marked an abrupt reversal for the Republicans, and was just one of a series of concessions to Democrats that Hyde disclosed at a Capitol Hill news conference. Also in answer to Democratic demands, a subcommittee of the panel will convene a hearing on what constitutes an impeachable offense, and Hyde promised to grant broad subpoena power to the committee's lead Democrat.

Despite the concessions, Hyde made it clear -- in his most forceful language on the topic yet -- that he sees impeachment hearings as inevitable.

"I should think there is enough to warrant an inquiry," said Hyde, whose committee will vote next Monday or Tuesday whether to formally request the third presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry responded favorably to Hyde's overtures. "Certainly, actions are more important than words, but the reassurances given by the chairman were welcome," McCurry said at a news conference yesterday.

Hyde's conciliatory gestures came after a weekend of fierce partisan battles, during which Democrats charged that Republicans were railroading the president with a rush to judgment on an impeachment inquiry. What's more, Democrats contended the GOP is so obsessively focused on the Monica Lewinsky scandal that the majority party is ignoring its basic legislative duties.

"The Republican Party base wants [Clinton] impeached, and they have to act as if they're going to impeach him, at least through the election," Judiciary Committee Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts said of congressional Republicans. "They can't do anything else."

New polls suggest Democratic charges may be sticking. A Time/CNN poll taken last week indicated that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the way the Judiciary Committee is handling the impeachment issue, while 37 percent approve. Of those polled, 61 percent said the Republicans are being too partisan. Only 31 percent said they disagreed. In contrast, 46 percent said the Democrats are being too partisan; 42 percent said the Democrats are not being too partisan.

"They're as good as it gets when it comes to spin," Arkansas Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a Judiciary Committee Republican, said of the Democrats. "It may be having an impact out there."

More than anything else, the poll numbers may be driving Republican concessions.

"It looks as though committee Republicans are in a full-scale tactical retreat," chided a committee Democratic spokesman, James Jordan.

On Friday, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee called for a bipartisan delegation to review evidence still in Starr's possession, but Republicans refused, saying their political foes only wanted to find evidence that would embarrass the independent counsel.

The Democrats also fell short when they called for hearings on what constitutes an impeachable offense, a definition they say is needed before any vote is held on whether to undertake a congressional inquiry into the charges against the president.

Hyde unilaterally reversed both those decisions yesterday, and defended his record, saying he had sought to emulate the bipartisan tone set by Rep. Peter W. Rodino when the New Jersey Democrat headed the Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings.

Republican leadership aides said House Speaker Newt Gingrich had nothing to do with the decision, despite continued assertions by Democrats that the speaker is directing the impeachment process.

"The Democrats would like to make Starr the issue, make process, procedure, Peter Rodino, Mark McGwire, they'd like to make a lot of things the issue other than what we're looking at," Hyde fumed. "We have striven mightily to be fair."

Committee aides yesterday offered more details of the materials from Starr's investigation scheduled for release Thursday, which will involve far less information than previously reported. Instead of the tens of thousands of pages promised last week, the panel will release several thousand pages -- roughly one-tenth of the documents Starr sent to Congress.

Most of the material being withheld by the committee came from federal agencies such as the Department of Defense or the Secret Service in response to the special prosecutor's broad subpoenas, and was at most only tangentially linked to the Clinton inquiry, a Republican judiciary committee investigator said.

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