March 20, 1998 in Nation/World

Wish Upon A Starr

David Espo Associated Press

House Republicans struggled internally Thursday to shape their response to any impeachment material being readied by independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Democrats accused them of acting hastily and for partisan purposes.

“‘Premature’ would be a gentle way of expressing some mystification of why they would leap to that process,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said as Republicans discussed the possibility of a small group of lawmakers reviewing Starr’s evidence before he formally delivers it to Congress.

“I have not been consulted in this matter. Therefore, I question their assertion of wanting to approach this issue in a bipartisan fashion,” said Rep. Dick Gephardt, the House Democratic leader.

For their part, Republicans said “no procedural decisions” will be made until Starr “makes a referral of information” in his investigation into a variety of areas.

In an unusual joint statement, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, outlined several options in the event Starr notifies them he has prepared evidence of an impeachable offense. These include: creating a task force, presumably to review the material at Starr’s offices; setting up a select committee to supplant the panel Hyde chairs; and determining the role of the Judiciary Committee, which historically has overseen impeachment investigations.

“Our principal concern - if an investigation is warranted - is to protect the innocent, while simultaneously getting to the truth,” the two lawmakers added.

While Gingrich and Hyde issued their statement, the House’s third-ranking Republican, Tom DeLay of Texas attacked Clinton in a sharply worded speech and called on him to speak publicly about the accusations swirling around him.

“The president’s silence is a grave disservice to the very people who elected him,” DeLay said in remarks on the House floor. “… A presidency enveloped in scandal is good for nobody, and the faith the American people have put in President Clinton has been violated time and time again.”

In a reference to Watergate, DeLay said: “There is no more fragile construct than a stonewall. In any scandal, the shortest route to safety is always the truth.”

Republican officials said they had not been in touch with Starr’s office to learn about any plans he might have. But one of them suggested that day was approaching. “At some point there will have to be contact,” said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some Democrats suggested that Gingrich and other Republicans were angling to stack the deck against Clinton. Others speculated precisely the opposite - that Gingrich was maneuvering to avoid being pushed by Clinton bashers in his party into formal impeachment proceedings, even if the evidence didn’t warrant them.

“They’re worried because it’s not negative enough. … There’s nothing there,” Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said of the evidence Starr is gathering. “This is Newt struggling with Newt’s dilemma. How do you avoid taking the blame (from his own conservatives) for exculpating President Clinton?”

The statement issued by Gingrich and Hyde came after days of skirmishing over the make-up of the group that would handle any impeachment review.

Gingrich earlier floated the idea of creating a special committee to be chaired by Hyde. Hyde and other members of his committee have objected, although Gingrich loyalists swiftly responded that Hyde himself had drafted a memo listing such a panel as one option for consideration.

It also came on the heels of a Washington Post story quoting officials as saying that Gingrich and Hyde had agreed to send a small group of House members to examine Starr’s evidence at some unspecified time.

Hyde was quickly surrounded by reporters when he stepped off the House floor during a vote on unrelated legislation.

“The speaker isn’t going to do anything until Judge Starr says, ‘we’re ready,”’ he said.

Echoing a point made in his written statement, Hyde said Republicans were concerned that once Starr formally delivers materials to Congress - presumably including secret grand jury testimony - they would be leaked to reporters and potentially harm the reputation of innocent individuals.

“It would be improvident, inappropriate, to spread that on the record,” he said.

He also described the purpose of such a group to “see if there’s enough (evidence) there to proceed further” to a formal impeachment inquiry.

While Hyde said the Republicans envisioned such a group would include Democrats, he had a oneword answer when asked if it would include an equal number of lawmakers from the two parties.

“Hardly,” he replied.

Democrats stressed there had been no consultation with them on a matter that could potentially lead to a full-blown impeachment proceeding.

“I don’t there’s any basis for that in the law,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said of the suggestion that lawmakers might pre-review some of Starr’s material.

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