Democrats to press for limits on inquiry Plan would counter GOP's open-ended impeachment probe

October 02, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik | Jonathan Weisman and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sharply divided House Democrats last night crafted an alternative proposal for an impeachment inquiry that would establish strict limits on the time and scope of an investigation into President Clinton's actions in the Monica Lewinsky case.

But moderate-to-conservative Democrats, with a wary eye on the November elections, appeared to have been rebuffed in their efforts to include some type of stiff presidential punishment that would insulate them from Republican charges that they were protecting Clinton. The House will vote next week on whether to convene impeachment hearings.

The divisions could mean that significant numbers of Democrats will ultimately vote for the Republican resolution, which would establish an open-ended impeachment inquiry.

House Democrats plan to formally unveil their resolution this morning, just hours before the public release of about 4,000 pages of evidence that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr included with his report outlining 11 possibly impeachable charges against the president.

Those documents, including grand jury testimony and transcripts of the taped conversations of Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp, are likely to upstage the Democratic impeachment

resolution. But the struggle over that resolution is pivotal: It will determine whether next week's historic impeachment inquiry vote will attain the veneer of bipartisanship or instead launch the third presidential impeachment investigation in U.S. history under a political cloud.

"It will depend, in part, on how good an alternative we can come up with," said Jim Jordan, a spokesman for the Judiciary Committee. "If it's something tough and realistic, we may be able to hold some of the [Democratic] conservatives" away from the Republican resolution.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee expressed confidence yesterday that the House will give them the broad investigative powers enshrined in the resolution they unveiled Wednesday. That resolution -- similar to the ground rules in the Watergate impeachment inquiry -- would empower the committee to explore matters beyond the Lewinsky scandal, with no time limits and broad subpoena power. The Democrats, by contrast, would confine any impeachment inquiry to Starr's allegations relating directly to Lewinsky.

The Republicans have boxed Democrats into a corner. For weeks, Democrats have called for the bipartisan approach enshrined during Watergate. That would include giving both Democrats and Republicans the power to issue subpoenas, and granting the president's lawyers the right to participate in all closed-door sessions and to cross-examine witnesses.

But now that a Watergate-style inquiry seems likely, Democrats are complaining that the proposal is too broad.

"We can't have it open-ended because Watergate was so completely different," Rep. John Conyers Jr., the Judiciary Committee's senior Democrat, protested yesterday. "It's not [having it] both ways. It's just common sense."

A Republican committee staff member noted that in 1974, Conyers voted three times against establishing time limits on the Watergate inquiry and voted once against limiting the scope of the investigation.

Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, a Judiciary Committee Republican, decried what he called a Democratic "commitment to discredit the process."

"I have a growing suspicion that no matter what we do, even if we acquiesce to their demands, they will criticize us," Canady said.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, another committee Republican, said: "It's important that the American people have the opportunity to focus on the real issues that are before the Congress. We must follow the truth wherever it leads."

The committee is heading toward an impeachment vote as divided as ever. Monday, Republican and Democratic lawyers will brief the committee on the strength of Starr's evidence. According to GOP committee aides, Republicans will underscore material that they believe may constitute credible evidence that Clinton lied under oath, encouraged others to lie, obstructed justice and abused the power of his office.

In contrast, Democratic lawyers said, they will show that the evidence of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, witness tampering and urging others to lie is thin at best. Starr's only strong case is perjury, one attorney said, but that charge is not serious enough to warrant impeachment because it does not stem from wrongdoing involving the president's official duties.

Impeachment "was to protect the nation from someone who was taking bribes, commiting treason or something like that," said Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, a Judiciary Committee Democrat. "You don't get to [consider] the evidence if the allegations, even if true, don't get to an impeachable offense."

But even Republicans with some misgivings about impeachment said enough evidence exists to warrant further investigation.

"If this is just about the president and his girlfriend, this train is not going to run very long," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, a conservative South Carolina Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

But, Graham said, "If it's about the president and organized operatives working in concert to deny somebody their day in court, that's another situation," referring to alleged efforts to undermine Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, indicated yesterday that he would rebuff bipartisan demands that could ultimately limit the impeachment inquiry's scope. On Tuesday, two Democratic and two Republican committee members wrote Hyde and Conyers to ask that Starr inform the committee whether he will be sending more information that could add more areas to investigate.

But Canady said the committee's Republican majority is inclined to let Starr operate on his own timetable, with no pressure from Capitol Hill.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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