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Pretrial 'Verdicts'

Many in Congress seem to have their minds made up

October 09, 1998

The debate that preceded Thursday's historic House vote ordering an inquiry into whether President Clinton should be impeached sounded all the familiar themes. Republicans emphasized the profound seriousness of the allegations raised in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report: that Clinton perjured himself, that he possibly obstructed justice and abused presidential power. Most Democrats repeated what they have been saying for weeks: that while Clinton's behavior should be condemned, an adulterous affair is not a crime against the state and that the open-ended impeachment inquiry Republicans demanded would be fatally tainted by partisan bias. And, in any event, Congress should be dealing with more important public issues, Democrats said.

In the end, as with most debates, the oratory changed few if any minds. An open-ended inquiry was ordered, with 31 Democrats breaking ranks to join the united Republican majority. Of the 206 Democrats in the House, all but 17 are seeking reelection next month. The defection rate of 15% lets Republicans claim the impeachment inquiry has bipartisan backing and lets the White House claim that Clinton still can count on strong Democratic loyalties.

The Judiciary Committee's inquiry will have no time limit, though if it hasn't finished its work by year's end its mandate will have to be renewed by the next Congress in January. It is not required to limit itself to the allegations in the Starr report, which dealt only with issues arising out of the Monica Lewinsky affair. On Wednesday, Starr told Congress that he "can't foreclose the possibility" that more impeachment-related charges might be raised. That teaser, with no hint of when his investigation will finally end, invites a prolongation of the inquiry, possibly into the term of the next Congress, in which Republicans anticipate their majorities in both chambers will be greater.

Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, referred during the debate to the "onerous, miserable, rotten duty" he and his colleagues now face. That duty won't be eased by the undisguised and sometimes venomous partisanship that divides his committee and too often seems to shape its deliberations.

The committee must decide whether Clinton committed impeachable offenses. If it concludes he has, and if the full House then votes to impeach him, Clinton will be tried by the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to remove him from office.

The other day Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), a respected authority on the Constitution, had to remind his colleagues that senators would be sitting as a jury in any impeachment trial and that as jurors it would be wrong for them to commit themselves in advance and no less wrong for the White House to be soliciting their support. How beneficial to the country it would have been if similar advice had been heeded by members of the House, so many of whom have already expressed their views on whether Clinton is guilty of impeachable offenses that the forthcoming inquiry and subsequent votes are likely to seem anticlimactic.

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