Let's not unduly speed up the impeachment process

November 09, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- While it can't be said that last Tuesday's congressional elections were a referendum on impeaching President Clinton, the swiftness with which House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde now proposes to complete his committee's inquiry clearly is in harmony with the exit polls indicating voters want Mr. Clinton's fate decided posthaste.

In interviews by Voter News Service with 7,855 voters in 250 randomly selected precincts as they left their polling places, 59 percent of those surveyed said Mr. Clinton was not a factor in how they voted. Those who said he was were about evenly split -- 21 percent saying they voted as they did to express opposition to him to 18 percent who were expressing their support.

At the same time, however, 61 percent said they disapproved of how Republicans in Congress had handled the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 62 percent said Congress should not impeach Mr. Clinton and remove him from office, and 57 percent said Congress should drop the whole matter without even conducting impeachment hearings.

A Starr witness

Mr. Hyde, who had said before Tuesday's voting that he wanted to wind up the committee's inquiry by the end of the year, clearly was listening to the voters. He promptly informed fellow Republican committee members that he may call only independent counsel Kenneth Starr and possibly one other witness to testify, on the legal ramifications of lying under oath, of which the president has been accused.

That limited agenda could have the House voting on whether to impeach by Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26. Mr. Hyde did say it was possible other witnesses would be called, but the pressure for resolving the matter with dispatch is on Mr. Hyde now, despite his assurances that he is not reacting to those exit polls.

"The committee continues to have a clear constitutional duty to complete its work in a fair and expeditious manner," he said in the wake of reports of the speedup. "This was just as true before the election as it is today. Our duty has not changed because the Constitution has not changed."

Just how swiftly Mr. Hyde can move may well depend on Mr. Starr, a man not known for precipitous conclusions after years of investigating the Whitewater affair and other allegations against Mr. Clinton long before Monica Lewinsky became a household name. Mr. Starr has said he is continuing his inquiries into these matters and could seek to have the basis for impeachment widened with another report to Congress.

But even key Republicans on the committee are indicating their patience with Mr. Starr is not unlimited. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor in Mr. Clinton's home state of Arkansas, took note of Tuesday's voting and said Mr. Starr should be told "we've got to conclude this matter. . . . It is critically important that if he has anything [more], to send it over [to the committee] immediately."

Speeding up the process

Meanwhile, the president continues to try to help the speedup along by observing, as he did after the voting, that the public is "tired of seeing Washington focused on politics and personalities."

He sometimes sounds as if he is an innocent bystander in the whole business, wanting the whole ugly mess over for the good of the country rather than to save his own political hide.

There is a difference, however, between acting expeditiously and sweeping the matter under a rug. After nine months of national torment that could have been avoided had Mr. Clinton said in January what he owned up to in August, the circumstances demand due deliberation, even if in the end the president escapes with only a slap on the wrist.

Sleazy details

There's no need to have the committee chew over all the sleazy details or turn the hearings into a circus with Ms. Lewinsky in the center ring. But impeachment wasn't on the ballot last Tuesday, so Congress still has a constitutional duty to fulfill that should not be unduly curtailed by what voters said in those exit polls.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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