Impeachment's man in middle Chairman: Facing critics on both sides of GOP, Rep. Henry J. Hyde begins impeachment hearings with rule of law as his guide.

November 15, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ELMHURST, Ill. -- Rep. Henry J. Hyde sat Buddha-like at the local Elks Club as his -admirers in the Elmhurst Republican Women's Club gingerly approached to offer encouragement: "Good luck, Henry," they said, or "We're praying for you," or "You've got a big job ahead of you."

But sitting quietly at a table with surprisingly few other guests, Hyde seemed more weary than confident -- almost as if he already knew, on that Thursday night before the election, that his life was about to go from difficult to nightmarish.

Since his party's poor showing at the polls, the white-maned, 74-year-old chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has become a man in the middle, trapped between the desires of GOP conservatives pushing the impeachment of President Clinton and Republicans who fear the wider U.S. electorate is fed up with the process.

An inquiry that had begun last month as a solemn constitutional exercise may be degenerating into an undignified disaster.

"God, I'd like to forget all of this. I mean, who needs it?" he said last week, in contemplating the awkwardness of his position.

"We paid attention to the polls and the elections," Hyde said, acknowledging those eager to make the impeachment process go away. But he's clearly troubled by the suggestion of a politically expedient solution. "I'm frightened for the rule of law. I really believe that notion that no man is above the law."

With formal impeachment hearings beginning this week, Hyde appears oddly alone. More outspoken conservatives on his committee have become the voices driving the impeachment process, and a power vacuum in the Republican Party has left Hyde nowhere to turn for moderating voices.

Democrats once complained that Hyde's inquiry was being controlled by GOP leadership, especially House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Now, with Gingrich on his way out, the next speaker not yet in control and the rest of GOP leadership in chaos, Democrats are increasingly wondering whether anyone is in control.

"The leadership vacuum may be presenting an opening for people pursuing an agenda," said a White House legal source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is serious business. Inertia has a momentum all its own."

In some sense, Hyde has been preparing all his life for this assignment, clawing his way up from suburban lawyer to Illinois House majority leader, from gadfly abortion foe on Capitol Hill to a lawmaker admired by many and respected by most members of the political establishment, Republican or Democrat.

The lawmaker's imposing form and prodigious oratory skills help create an aura of venerability.

Utah Rep. Chris Cannon, a committee Republican, calls Hyde "one of the brightest minds in Congress."

Polarized problems

But in many ways, the deck has been stacked against him. The committee he leads is considered the most politically polarized in Congress. Social issues such as abortion and school prayer became litmus tests for membership, ensuring that only the most conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats would be assigned to the committee. Now that such a delicate task as impeachment has come before the panel, a political center does not exist to forge compromises.

And if Hyde tries to craft a compromise on his own, he could face a mutiny by committee conservatives, who see no alternative in the Constitution to impeachment.

As soon as the notion of compromise was broached last week, one committee conservative, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, was appalled. "You know," he said, "the capacity of Republican leaders in Congress to either not understand the Constitution or to completely and deliberately disregard it is absolutely amazing. It boggles one's mind."

Hyde is in a box from which there may be no escape, his Democratic colleagues say.

"Henry Hyde would like to get rid of this job," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, a committee Democrat. "But he hasn't thought out how to do it."

Hyde has insisted he is in control of the Republican majority of the committee, and committee Republicans say Hyde has no problems with their push toward impeachment.

"Everyone has an opinion," Hyde told the Chicago Sun-Times last week, as cracks began to show in the GOP over impeachment. "But in our committee, we're united and proceeding with our duty under the law."

Said Cannon: "Henry has been very, very consistent. Nobody chooses his words as carefully as Henry Hyde, and I don't think you could show anything that would indicate he disagrees with the other members."

Yet Democrats on the committee -- and some Republicans off the committee -- seem to think Hyde does not quite believe his own pronouncement. Indeed, Democrats are deferential, fearing that criticism of the esteemed chairman would backfire. Instead, they speak vaguely of the "radical right wing" of the Republican Party or Judiciary Committee Republicans in general.

But away from Capitol Hill, the gloves are coming off.

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