Setting the stage for an ugly partisan fight, a House committee agreed Wednesday to beef up the panel that would conduct any impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.
On a party-line voice vote, the House panel that oversees committee funding approved an additional $1.3 million for the House Judiciary Committee to hire 18 staff members, purchase office equipment and pay for other administrative expenses.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., insisted the money is needed to conduct a long-awaited review of Justice Department operations. But House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, suggested the increase is aimed at preparing the panel to hear allegations of wrongdoing by Clinton, expected to come in a report from independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
“The fact is we know Judge Starr will be sending us a report, and we don’t know what will be in that report, and we want to be able to address that,” Armey said.
The House Oversight Committee also approved, 4-2, an additional $1.8 million for the Government Reform Panel, which is investigating allegations of illegal campaign contributions for Clinton’s re-election effort.
Democrats charge that Republicans are tapping into an emergency reserve fund to “harass” the president and to avoid public scrutiny. The funding increases do not have to be approved by the full House.
“This cash stash is nothing more than a taxpayer-financed slush fund for GOP leaders to tap when embarking on partisan witch hunts,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
Starr is investigating allegations that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and told her to lie about it under oath. Clinton has denied wrongdoing.
By law, Starr is required to report to Congress any evidence of wrongdoing by the president. Any action against Clinton would originate in the House - specifically, in the House Judiciary Committee.
Earlier this week, Hyde and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, exchanged heated words about the panel’s funding request.
The dust-up spilled onto the House floor when Conyers railed on Tuesday that Hyde is trying to “surreptitiously commence an impeachment investigation.”
Hyde denied Conyers’ charges on Wednesday. He said Democrats are engaging in “raw partisan politics” with their attack on the committee’s funding request.
“The notion that we are dashing toward impeachment is too partisan,” Hyde said. “This is for the purpose of beefing up our staff.”
Hyde has said repeatedly that there has not been a thorough review of the Justice Department’s operations in nearly 20 years. But Democrats contend the process of “reauthorizing” the Justice Department does not qualify as an emergency reason to tap into Speaker Newt Gingrich’s reserve fund.
Hyde has been careful not to link his committee’s funding request to Starr’s investigation, but he has said that new staff members could be flexible and review the independent counsel’s report when it arrives.
Still, Armey’s comments represent the first time a GOP leader has linked the $1.3 million outright to possible impeachment proceedings.
Later, Armey said he had made a gaffe and sought to clarify that more committee staffers are needed for Justice Department oversight.
“If you like, just say I was a dutiful rat and I took the bait,” Armey said. “I really don’t want any more cheese. I just want out of the trap.”