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THE STARR REPORT

Report Draws Mixed Reaction in Congress

Politics: Many voice disgust at details. But Democrats defend the president, saying they see no justification for his impeachment.

September 12, 1998|EDWIN CHEN and JANET HOOK and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — "What a jerk!"

That less-than-flattering assessment of the president of the United States was delivered Friday afternoon by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who nevertheless intends to defend him because she doesn't believe he committed any impeachable offenses.

That mixed verdict was about as good as it got for William Jefferson Clinton on Capitol Hill in the wake of the release of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

The mortifying details of Clinton's sexual escapade left members of Congress disgusted, and they said so.

But significantly, many Democrats also began to step forward to defend the president, arguing that his conduct does not justify a firing. They also denounced Starr's investigation as a prolonged witch hunt into a person's private life--an effort they clearly hoped the public would find offensive.

In short, the emerging party line among Democrats rallying behind Clinton was that the report contained little that had not been expected, only salacious details that few really care to learn.

As for Starr's allegations of impeachable offenses, Democrats urged a go-slow approach, noting that the report by design is a one-sided document and that the charges against Clinton call for dispassionate, juridical scrutiny.

"Four years, over $40 million, and what you're dealing with is the president's affair and the president's sexual appetite," fumed Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a steadfast Clinton defender. "We don't want to know the sordid stuff."

Some Again Call for Resignation

Starr's report certainly fueled Clinton's GOP critics, and some, such as Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), renewed their demands for his resignation.

Echoing Ashcroft was Rep. George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), who said the key issue "is the integrity of the office of the president," which, he says, Clinton has destroyed. Radanovich, who has previously called for Clinton to step down, said Friday: "I reissue that call today: The president must resign."

But many other Republicans held their fire, content to give the public time to digest the report. "We'll let the report speak for itself," said a senior Republican National Committee official.

To a large extent, these initial reactions to Starr's report were just that, given that few lawmakers had had time to read the 445-page report. And many were not available for comment, having left their offices--in some cases boarding airplanes to their home districts for the weekend--by the time the report began circulating.

Still, the relatively muted GOP response--and the strong Democratic support for Clinton--signaled good, if tentative, news for the president.

As Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), head of the House GOP campaign committee, conceded, Republicans are unlikely to push for impeachment in the absence of some Democratic support.

"If Democrats decide they don't care what the facts are, we can't impeach the president ourselves," Linder allowed.

It's now up to the House Judiciary Committee to review all of Starr's materials in the coming weeks and decide whether to ask the full House to authorize an impeachment inquiry.

Although such proceedings could get underway quickly, it is doubtful they can be completed before November's elections. But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) suggested Friday that Congress should return after the elections for a lame-duck session in order to dispose of the issue once and for all.

To allow the situation to fester, he said, would "harm the country . . . [and] endanger our ability to continue to provide meaningful governmental leadership."

Reacting to Daschle's suggestion, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he wants the House Judiciary Committee to keep working--while allowing the rest of Congress to adjourn as soon as legislatively possible, probably by early October. Gingrich said Congress can be recalled if leaders deem it necessary after the elections.

For some Democrats, however, the verdict was already in.

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in an NBC-TV interview:

"It's quite apparent the president has betrayed his wife. The president's actions are indefensible, but the president has not betrayed the American people. He has not betrayed the Constitution. The allegations of obstruction of justice are nothing more than what we've already heard. The president did not tell the truth about an extramarital affair. Let's not make more of it than it is. In order to impeach a president, the offense must be grave. Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton is not grave."

No Impeachment Grounds Found

Lofgren, a Judiciary Committee member, put it this way: "The standard [for impeachment] is a destruction of the constitutional form of government, and all we've got is the president had a girlfriend and lied about it."

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