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THE STARR REPORT

In Report's Wake, Question Now Is, What Is Next Step?

Congress: As House ponders impeachment issue, key to final outcome is how American people view the situation.

September 13, 1998|DOYLE McMANUS and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When Americans choose a new president, the process is familiar and well-marked: a yearlong cycle of campaigns and primaries capped by a general election.

But when Americans consider firing a president--as many are now--the landscape into which they step is uncharted and largely unknown.

The formal part of the process already has begun to unroll. The House of Representatives plans to begin its own inquiry into President Clinton's conduct this week and may vote on the next step, official impeachment hearings, as early as October.

But the more important forum, members of Congress say, is informal: the nation's quickening conversation as to whether Clinton should remain in the White House through the remaining 28 months of his term.

On "the constitutional-legal track . . . there's a very orderly, if seldom-used, process," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, a moderate Democrat who has been critical of Clinton's conduct.

"But there's a second track that will occur simultaneously, and that is the track of political leadership. What effect is this having on the president's capacity to lead domestically and in foreign policy? For that, there's less of a prescribed pattern of evaluation, and it will be more subjective," Graham said.

In that free-form public discussion, already well underway, a thousand factors may intrude. Some are obvious and immediate. How is the public judging independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report: as a damning indictment or as a pornographic assault?

Others are just over the horizon. When Monica S. Lewinsky begins to speak in public--as she may do soon--will that change perceptions of her presidential affair?

Still others seem more distant but may come to hold equal weight. Will the economy continue to be robust, or will Clinton's proud claims of prosperity fade? In a crisis overseas, will Clinton easily assume command, or will the scandal erode his ability to lead? In the next Congress, will the president have more friends--at a time when he needs them most--or far fewer?

If every factor breaks Clinton's way, one Democrat said Saturday, "we can get through this. It will be a blip on the radar screen."

But if things go badly, White House aides and House Democrats acknowledged, the president might soon face delegations of Democratic leaders urging him to resign.

A rough map of the road ahead:

Stage One: Battle Is Joined

This week, the House is expected to approve rules of engagement for the Judiciary Committee's preliminary inquest--nitty-gritty details about how subpoenas are to be issued, how witnesses can be cited for contempt, and other procedures. Expect a vicious fight between Republicans who want an expansive, free-ranging investigation and Democrats who do not.

The panel's investigation most likely will occur behind closed doors, through private hearings and interviews. Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has refused to say whether he might call Clinton, Starr or Lewinsky to testify.

The committee's most important action will be its decision whether to recommend the launch of a full-scale impeachment inquiry. A ruling is expected before the House breaks for recess in early October--but only after a bitter partisan brawl.

"It's a very polarized, very partisan committee," noted Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a liberal member who often contributes to the panel's high decibel level.

Even before the panel begins its deliberations, though, members of Congress are gauging the public reaction to the Starr report.

"What will have to happen is, the American people will have to take a look at this," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), who heads the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. "If they read it and feel repulsed, and determine that this president has lost the ability to lead, they will express themselves.

"Politicians are followers. If the American people determine it's just about sex, he will continue as a president who is politically, at least, impotent," Linder said.

Clinton is not waiting for others to act. His official defenders are deploying, beginning with this morning's TV talk shows. The president himself plans an intensive week of meeting with members of Congress "to present a vigorous defense," one aide said.

The wild card: Lewinsky. The former White House intern may emerge from seclusion for TV and newspaper interviews soon. The impression she makes--scheming vixen or appealing victim--could color the public's view of Clinton considerably.

Stage Two: Trying to Govern

Republicans and Democrats alike noted that Congress is only a few weeks away from the first test of Clinton's ability to govern--and of the GOP's determination to challenge a damaged president.

By the end of September, Congress must pass a long list of appropriation bills, many of which include Republican-sponsored provisions Clinton has threatened to veto.

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