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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

GOP to Call Starr Before Impeachment Panel, Sources Say

November 05, 1998|MARC LACEY and RICHARD A. SERRANO and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — House Republicans intend to call independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and an expert on perjury as part of streamlined impeachment hearings that would conclude by year's end, sources close to the process said Wednesday.

The decision comes in the wake of Tuesday's congressional election returns and considerable hand-wringing among House Republicans about how to handle a process that voters seemed to indicate they did not want.

The plan to call Starr as a witness comes as a surprise since GOP lawmakers previously have been concerned that an appearance by Starr would give Democratic lawmakers the opportunity to cross-examine him about his tactics.

Until Wednesday, Democrats were the ones who were considering calling Starr as a witness.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) is expected to announce the hearing schedule and witness list in Chicago today.

Earlier Wednesday, Hyde had huddled with his senior investigators and declared business as usual.

"The committee continues to have a clear constitutional duty to complete its work in a fair and expeditious manner," Hyde said in a statement. "This was just as true before the election as it is today. Our duty has not changed because the Constitution has not changed."

But that public posture of normalcy belied deep uncertainty among rank-and-file Republicans.

"In terms of political strength, I think the president is fairly strong and the impeachment inquiry is fairly weak," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

"The American people don't want impeachment," added another moderate GOP lawmaker. "I think the Judiciary Committee knows that and needs to remember that as [its] inquiry proceeds."

But there remained plenty of uncertainty about the inquiry, which centers on President Clinton's extramarital affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

After a subcommittee hearing next Monday on the constitutional grounds for impeachment, the full Judiciary Committee is expected to begin hearings Nov. 19.

Beyond that, however, much about the process remains unclear.

"Will we actually get around to voting for articles of impeachment? I don't know," said one committee aide. "I can't see that far ahead."

As the returns came in Tuesday night, Hyde said in an interview that Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded her phone calls with the intern, would not be among those on the GOP witness list.

Hyde said he believes there is a 50-50 chance Starr will drop even more investigative material in the House's lap--complicating the next step.

"The chairman reserves the right, and probably will, call other witnesses," said a GOP committee source Wednesday. "This plan is consistent with the chairman's stated goal to resolve this matter by year's end."

GOP strategists had presumed that their party would pick up additional seats in the midterm election and had hoped to receive a long-awaited signal of public disgust with Clinton's conduct.

Instead, Republicans lost ground, with some exit polls showing that voters were more uneasy with the GOP-led inquiry than with the target of their investigation.

Even before the election results were in, Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) was raising a red flag, warning her Republican colleagues that they were pushing the impeachment issue too far.

She said that hard-liners within the party could push for a House vote on impeachment, but they might lose. With the Republican majority's margin of 11 seats now apparently sliced by five, that likelihood looms even larger now.

"If [the facts are] just what we have now, it's over," predicted Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.), who had been trying to devise potential escape routes for his party even before the election.

While Hyde has set a year-end deadline for hearings, if the Judiciary Committee approves articles of impeachment against Clinton, the next step in a continuing process would be a vote by the full House.

But Souder said that GOP leaders simply could cut off funding for the inquiry at year's end. Or they could pull the plug by "finding a graceful way to say too much evidence is contradictory." Another alternative, he said, would be to keep the inquiry open in hopes that Starr submits more damaging evidence.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who will play a major role in steering the process, refused to tip his hand. "Whether it's this Congress or it's the next Congress, I would hope that the members would . . . do their duty as they understand it under the Constitution, rather than worrying about either polls or talk shows," Gingrich said.

*

Lacey and Serrano reported from Washington and Braun from Bensonville, Ill.

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