WASHINGTON -- Despite Kenneth W. Starr's exoneration of President Clinton in some of the most heated controversies of his administration, many Republicans cling to the hope that a new revelation could take the question of impeachment away from sex, toward more unambiguous issues of presidential abuse of power.
But Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are increasingly resolved to impeach the president over the Monica Lewinsky scandal alone, warning fellow Republicans that they can no longer expect fresh controversies to propel the probe forward.
"There are people who still want to believe the worst about everything. I'm not one of them," said Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, a senior Judiciary Committee Republican and vocal advocate of impeachment. "We have to stick to the facts we have."
The independent counsel's testimony before the committee Thursday took some of the most "Watergate-like" controversies "off the table," conceded another committee Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Starr exonerated Clinton from responsibility in several matters under investigation by his office, including the administration's alleged misuse of FBI files, the firing of the White House travel office staff and at least some of the Whitewater issues.
Without those issues, Graham said, voters are unlikely to change their stubborn opposition to impeachment.
But in a remarkable statement about what some have called the "scandal culture" of Washington, many Republicans on and off Capitol Hill remain convinced the controversies that have long dogged the Clinton White House will soon bear fruit.
Larry Klayman, director of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, insisted last week that the FBI files and travel office matters directly implicate the president in serious illegalities, despite the independent counsel's conclusions.
He accused Starr of "insufficiently" investigating the allegations.
"Travelgate was a chip shot," Klayman said of the travel office controversy. "It's inexplicable that he didn't render indictments."
Other Republicans hold out hope that the 1996 presidential fund-raising scandals and the alleged transfer of sensitive missile technology to China will ensnare Clinton.
"The '96 fund raising, that is the real scandal, maybe the biggest scandal of the 20th century," said Rep. Steve Horn, a moderate Republican from California. "We don't know what else is going to pop up."
That undying hope ensures that no question of impropriety really ends in Washington, said Suzanne Garment, author of the book "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."
Before the book was published in 1992, she recalled, "I kept telling the publisher if he didn't bring the book out soon, scandals would be over. He's never let me forget that."
Four years ago, in an exhaustive dissection of Bill and Hillary Clinton's Whitewater land deal for Harper's magazine, Arkansas author Gene Lyons declared the scandal a vicious compendium of rumors, half-truths and leaps of judgment, with no real evidence of wrongdoing by the president or first lady.
He was dismissed as a crank and a Clinton apologist.
Indeed, not until Starr told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that he did not have the evidence to implicate the president or first lady did Harper's get to declare itself vindicated.
As House Republicans try to craft a graceful finale to the Clinton impeachment inquiry, they will be wrestling with a dilemma facing not only the independent counsel but also the media and Congress: If it is so easy for Washington to launch a scandal, why is it so difficult to end one?
"In my naivete, I thought once I blow the whistle on this, it would end," Lyons said of Whitewater with a laugh. "Not a chance."
The problem is bipartisan. George Bush and Ronald Reagan battled charges of impropriety in the Iran-contra scandal for years. Theodore B. Olson, a Reagan administration official, was doggedly pursued by a special prosecutor over allegations surrounding improprieties at the Environmental Protection Agency -- ultimately with no indictment.
Actors embroiled in the scandals have had their careers ruined, their lives put under a microscope and their reputations shattered.
"Ordinary people have to ask themselves this: How long would it take if a special prosecutor put five investigators on me and said, 'Get this guy's college transcripts, get his tax records, his bank records, his credit reports, get everything. Just get him,' " Lyons said, recalling a recent notice from an accountant that he had underreported his income on a tax form.
"I know I'd be in jail in a week."
The Clinton administration has been particularly fertile ground for scandal-mongering.
Travelgate and Filegate