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THE STARR REPORT

Californians in Congress Spend Their Weekend Doing Homework

House: As they plow through Starr report, reactions range from caution to outrage. As largest state delegation, members will play key role in scandal's outcome.

September 13, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Rep. Mary Bono lugged the thick black binder through four airports as she made her way home to Palm Springs for the weekend. A freshman Republican on the Judiciary Committee that will consider the evidence against President Clinton, she picked up the phone Saturday and asked former President Ford for advice.

Rep. Matthew G. Martinez took the report to his Georgetown house Friday night. By 4:15 p.m. Saturday, he had only gotten to page seven and was almost ready to throw the whole thing in the trash.

"I'm going to read as much as I can of it, but . . . it's all small print," the veteran Monterey Park Democrat grumbled. "It reads like a bad novel."

While the nation has the luxury of poring over the gamy details in independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky or shunning the document in disgust, the magnum opus has landed with a thud in the laps of House members. And the chamber's 52 Californians--well represented on the Judiciary Committee (five of 35 members) and by far the nation's largest delegation, will play a critical role in determining whether the report ultimately forces Clinton from office.

So most of the state's House members spent the weekend digesting 445 pages of raunch and legalese, some sitting alone at the kitchen table, others up half the night in the rocking chair.

Some couldn't put it down: Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) cannot remember the last time he kept his nose in a book for five straight hours--particularly not on an airplane headed back to his district with several passengers hanging over his shoulder.

In contrast, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) said she has no intention of reading Starr's findings at all.

"I'm not one of those people who sits and talks about idle gossip and rumors and allegations," she snorted Saturday in Santa Ana, dressed in red, white and blue while stumping in a brutal race against her determined predecessor and current opponent, Republican Robert K. Dornan. "I've got a lot of things to work on before then."

Such lack of interest was certainly rare among the California lawmakers, many of whom have devoted the weekend to little other than the independent counsel's findings.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), a judiciary panel member, spent part of the weekend holed up in her Capitol Hill office, her family 2,000 miles away in the Silicon Valley. An attorney herself, she hired a special counsel to advise her on impeachment while she read not only Starr's report but various tomes on constitutional law.

Lawmakers such as Lofgren--who admit to finding pleasure in thick books of case law, not sleazy romance novels--were not interested in seamy detail about cigars and semen stains.

"It's not a day I expected to have, you know. You join up the Judiciary Committee to work on patents and copyrights and you end up. . . ." Lofgren sighed, her voice trailing.

Many of the Californians were aware that their constituents are eager to hear what they have to say about the report, but they were resisting a rush to judgment.

"Other people can read this and say impeach, don't impeach. What a luxury that would be," Bono said Saturday before taking a break from business to watch her 7-year-old daughter lead cheers at a football game. "I turned down invitations to major talk shows because I know I'm boring. I'm not going to make headlines saying, 'Let's wait and see.' But I'm not reading this like a novel. I'll probably read it again on the plane [back to Washington] Monday."

Some of the most partisan Clinton loyalists rushed to defend their president and cry conspiracy--even those who had scarcely gotten past Starr's table of contents.

"I've read far enough into the report to find what the actual sexual contact was, it was oral sex 10 times, eight of those times the president didn't ejaculate," Martinez said, in yet another stunning example of how public discourse has devolved. "You come to the conclusion that this is one sick puppy, this little gal.

"Ken Starr can come to conclusions--I can too," Martinez sputtered. "I come to the conclusion that the president was set up."

But others whose political situation is more tenuous--such as Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Pleasanton), who barely won election in 1996 and is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge in her GOP-leaning district--were less forgiving.

"I am distressed by the details of the president's reckless and self-indulgent conduct. His behavior has been deplorable," Tauscher said Saturday.

Regardless of their politics, this was not the way California lawmakers hoped to close out the 105th Congress. In their minds, Starr could not have dropped his legal grenade at a worse time.

It came during the first week of school, getting in the way of soccer sign-ups and Sunday School enrollment. It came less than two months before the November election. And it came a month before the end of the session, with bills yet to pass.

"I did not go to Congress to vote on impeachment. That's not the reason I leave my family every week," said Bilbray, who spent Saturday in San Diego taping a campaign commercial in his tough fight for a third term.

He said he has no idea how the scandal will affect voter turnout. "I hope it doesn't scare the mainstream voters from participating in the process."

Times staff writers Esther Schrader, Jodi Wilgoren and Phil Willon contributed to this story.

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