WASHINGTON -- White House attorneys met yesterday for the first time with House impeachment lawyers, demanding what congressional Democrats have been requesting for months: limits on the scope and length of the impeachment inquiry, along with a clear definition of an impeachable offense.
Republicans snapped back at what they called a White House crusade to obscure the allegations facing President Clinton: perjury, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. The process they are following, the House Republicans argued, is fair and identical to the procedures followed by Democrats during the Watergate investigation.
"At some point, the president's defenders have to get away from this partisan attack on process," said Paul McNulty, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee, which is conducting the impeachment proceedings. "The strategy is clear -- attack the process, attack the process, and that way you never get to the facts."
The meeting was the first lawyer-to-lawyer conference since the House voted Oct. 8 to convene the third presidential impeachment inquiry in history. Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel; David E. Kendall, Clinton's personal attorney; and Gregory Craig, the new White House special counsel, huddled for more than 90 minutes with David Schippers, the committee's chief Republican investigator, and Abbe Lowell, the chief Democratic investigator, to begin hammering out a process for the inquiry.
Impeachment hearings are likely to begin by mid-November. Until then, lawyers will be gathering facts and interviewing witnesses to supplement the thousands of pages of evidence submitted by Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel.
Though both sides declared yesterday's meeting cordial and constructive, their talk with reporters afterward quickly degenerated into name-calling.
Craig said the president deserves the same rights as any American -- to know precisely what charges he faces, what standards he will be judged by and whether the matter will be settled in a timely manner.
Starr included 11 potentially impeachable offenses in his report last month. Schippers outlined 15 offenses. Last week, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, spoke of streamlining the charges to three.
"It may be 15, it may be 11, it may be three," Craig complained, "but they're not being bound by any of these."
Craig said the White House still does not know whether the impeachment inquiry will include topics beyond the Monica Lewinsky matter.
The Judiciary subcommittee hearing on what constitutes an impeachable offense had been scheduled for today but has been put off until next month.
"The majority has mastered the talk of speed but has not mastered the walk of speed," Craig said.
Pub Date: 10/22/98