WASHINGTON -- Concerned that Tuesday's Democratic victories are being viewed as a repudiation of the Clinton impeachment drive, the Republican chairman in charge of the effort summoned his chief investigators to a strategy session in his Chicago office yesterday and conferred privately with colleagues.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, who predicted before the election that anything less than an overwhelming GOP victory would undercut the impeachment effort, acknowledged that Democratic gains have stolen his "momentum" but resolved that Congress has "a job to do."
"The committee continues to have a clear constitutional duty to complete its work in a fair and expeditious manner," Hyde said in a statement yesterday.
"This was just as true before the election as it is today. Our duty has not changed because the Constitution has not changed."
Hyde told committee members yesterday that his plan is to call only independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and one other witness at the panel's impeachment hearings, the Associated Press reported.
Committee spokeswoman Michelle R. Morgan said the chairman planned more extensive comments today to articulate where the inquiry is headed.
The committee is scheduled to hold preliminary hearings Monday on the history of impeachment.
Speaking Tuesday night in Chicago, Hyde said he thought "a status quo election diminished enthusiasm for the Republican cause and stiffened the Democrats' resolve," according to Morgan.
He also said he did not see any possibility of dropping the impeachment matter.
"He doesn't feel there's a great deal of momentum, but believes they have a job to do," said Morgan.
Although clearly buoyed by the what he called the Democrats' "astonishing" success, President Clinton, in his first public comments on the election, declined to say directly whether it would have any impact on the impeachment proceedings.
"That's in the hands of Congress and the American people," he told reporters.
But Clinton said the "lesson" of the election was that "the people who were rewarded were rewarded because they wanted to do something for the American people."
"They wanted to do something to pull this country together and to move this country forward," he said.
Other Democrats and White House officials were more expressive in their belief that the Democratic gains greatly disarmed the GOP-led impeachment inquiry.
"I do think there was a message for the Congress," Vice President Al Gore said yesterday. "I think the American people said, 'Get back to work on the people's business.' "
Even a number of Republicans acknowledged yesterday that the electorate was sending an anti-impeachment message with its vote. In exit polls Tuesday, 58 percent of voters said they thought Congress should drop the matter.
"People are definitely tired with the impeachment," said California Rep. Mary Bono, a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee. "They want to put it behind them. Nonetheless, I think it's still our duty to go ahead and look at what we have before us, to be expedient with it, to be judicious and be over with it."
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the first Maryland member of Congress to call for Clinton's resignation, appeared to back away from impeachment, saying a reprimand or censure may be more appropriate in light of the GOP's poor showing Tuesday night.
People 'less ravenous'
"If we picked up 30 Republicans, people would have been more ravenous," the Eastern Shore Republican said. "They're less ravenous now."
In an interview last week in Illinois, Hyde said the impeachment drive would be harmed even by modest Republican gains in the election, much less the sort of losses suffered Tuesday night.
Anything short of a dramatic GOP success, Hyde said, would give policy-makers and pundits ample fodder to dismiss the coming impeachment hearings as a partisan show conducted by a party that is out of touch with the desires of the American people.
The question now may be how Republicans -- dealing with internal party struggles as a result of Tuesday's losses -- can get out of a constitutional process they have already started. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and other GOP leaders insisted yesterday that the election should have no impact on the proceedings.
"I'm not going to prejudge what Chairman Henry Hyde recommends or what the Judiciary Committee decides," Gingrich said yesterday at a news conference in his Georgia district.
"I would hope that the members would be moved by having sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and would do their duty as they understand it, under the Constitution, rather than worrying about either polls or talk shows."
Said Rep. John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee: "We've got a constitutional duty to do, and it will be done."