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Picking Through A Partisan Minefield

Republicans are beginning to realize they face a heck of a problem if independent counsel Kenneth Starr hands over evidence of possible impeachable offenses by President Clinton to the House of Representatives.

Unofficial reports are that Starr may do exactly that in a couple months, and already there have been signs of disarray within the GOP hierarchy. For a few tense days, until they met last Wednesday and seemingly reached agreement, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde were at odds about how to handle the ticklish issue.

Hyde wanted it in his Judiciary Committee, the same panel that voted out articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon. Gingrich, according to well-sourced leaks, preferred a select committee headed by Hyde. The Republicans on such a committee would be picked by Gingrich; the Democrats, by Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

On Wednesday, Gingrich and Hyde agreed that the initial review of Starr’s findings would be handled by a small group drawn mainly, but not necessarily entirely, from Judiciary. That finesses the problem for now, but does not solve it.

Republicans appointed by Gingrich would inevitably be seen as his personal agents, whether they acted to punish the president or keep him in office.

Equally damaging, any such scheme would put Gephardt in the position of picking Democrats who would sit in judgment of Clinton. Gephardt is widely assumed to be interested in challenging Vice President Gore for the nomination in 2000, a task that would be even more difficult if Gore were already in the Oval Office.

For many reasons - including his need not to antagonize the millions of Clinton loyalists - Gephardt would almost have to name people who would be extremely reluctant to impose any penalties on the president.

The almost inevitable upshot: a partisan verdict that would divide the country and taint the whole procedure.

That was avoided in the 1974 impeachment of President Nixon. The House vote to authorize an impeachment investigation was 410-4. The committee vote to subpoena what turned out to be incriminating Oval Office tapes and transcripts had only three dissenting Republicans. Six of the 17 committee Republicans voted for the first article of impeachment; seven voted for the second. They were joined by all three conservative Southern Democrats, whose districts had been strongly pro-Nixon, in creating overwhelming 27-11 and 28-10 verdicts.

But anyone who looks at the makeup of the current Judiciary Committee would have qualms about turning the impeachment matter over to its tender mercies. It is, even Hyde acknowledges, one of the most ideologically polarized and partisan committees in the House.

Hyde himself is respected and admired on both sides of the aisle, a 23-year veteran with a strong conservative record but demonstrated independence.

For example, he has regularly defied GOP orthodoxy and led the opposition to term limits for members of Congress. But only seven of the other 18 committee Republicans have more than five years of service in the House. Five of the members are first-termers.

Voting studies show the Republican side to be highly partisan and strongly conservative in its makeup. Congressional Quarterly reports that every one of the Republicans voted more than 90 percent of the time with their own leadership on roll calls last year where the two parties took opposing stands. Thirteen of the 19 Republicans come from the conservative Sun Belt. Only two of the Republicans voted less than three-fourths of the time with the House’s “conservative coalition.”

The tilt on the Democratic side is even more conspicuous. The majority of the 15 Democrats come from only three states. Massachusetts and California have three apiece; New York, two. Five of the Democrats are African-Americans; five others, Jewish. Both constituencies have given Clinton overwhelming support.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit, the senior Democrat, is a man who found even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society insufficiently liberal for his tastes. With three or four exceptions, the Democratic side is stacked with people on the left flank of the Democratic Caucus.

Rep. John Linder of Georgia, a Gingrich intimate and the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is probably correct in saying, “As a practical matter, members of one party can’t impeach a president of the opposite party by themselves. It takes votes from people of his own party to make it credible.”

It is difficult to identify any Judiciary Democrats who would cast such a vote today.

Much can change, but the risk is real that if Starr hands off his case to Congress, the public may see a spectacle much less edifying than it saw in 1974.


Tags: ethics