Bowing to public concerns about fairness, the HouseJudiciary Committee chairman announced yesterday that a bipartisan legal teamwill review 20 boxes of evidence that Kenneth W. Starr did not send toCongress with his report on President Clinton.
"The Democrats want to see what's over there," Chairman Henry J. Hyde saidof material related to the Clinton investigation that remains in the files ofthe independent counsel. "They have a lurking suspicion that there may beexculpatory material, and so we're going to accommodate them."
The decision marked an abrupt reversal for the Republicans, and was justone of a series of concessions to Democrats that Hyde disclosed at a CapitolHill news conference. Also in answer to Democratic demands, a subcommittee ofthe panel will convene a hearing on what constitutes an impeachable offense,and Hyde promised to grant broad subpoena power to the committee's leadDemocrat.
Despite the concessions, Hyde made it clear -- in his most forcefullanguage on the topic yet -- that he sees impeachment hearings as inevitable.
"I should think there is enough to warrant an inquiry," said Hyde, whosecommittee will vote next Monday or Tuesday whether to formally request thethird presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry responded favorably to Hyde'sovertures. "Certainly, actions are more important than words, but thereassurances given by the chairman were welcome," McCurry said at a newsconference yesterday.
Hyde's conciliatory gestures came after a weekend of fierce partisanbattles, during which Democrats charged that Republicans were railroading thepresident with a rush to judgment on an impeachment inquiry. What's more,Democrats contended the GOP is so obsessively focused on the Monica Lewinskyscandal that the majority party is ignoring its basic legislative duties.
"The Republican Party base wants [Clinton] impeached, and they have to actas if they're going to impeach him, at least through the election," JudiciaryCommittee Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts said of congressionalRepublicans. "They can't do anything else."
New polls suggest Democratic charges may be sticking. A Time/CNN polltaken last week indicated that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the waythe Judiciary Committee is handling the impeachment issue, while 37 percentapprove. Of those polled, 61 percent said the Republicans are being toopartisan. Only 31 percent said they disagreed. In contrast, 46 percent saidthe Democrats are being too partisan; 42 percent said the Democrats are notbeing too partisan.
"They're as good as it gets when it comes to spin," Arkansas Rep. AsaHutchinson, a Judiciary Committee Republican, said of the Democrats. "It maybe having an impact out there."
More than anything else, the poll numbers may be driving Republicanconcessions.
"It looks as though committee Republicans are in a full-scale tacticalretreat," chided a committee Democratic spokesman, James Jordan.
On Friday, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee called for a bipartisandelegation to review evidence still in Starr's possession, but Republicansrefused, saying their political foes only wanted to find evidence that wouldembarrass the independent counsel.
The Democrats also fell short when they called for hearings on whatconstitutes an impeachable offense, a definition they say is needed before anyvote is held on whether to undertake a congressional inquiry into the chargesagainst the president.
Hyde unilaterally reversed both those decisions yesterday, and defendedhis record, saying he had sought to emulate the bipartisan tone set by Rep.Peter W. Rodino when the New Jersey Democrat headed the Judiciary Committeeduring the Watergate hearings.
Republican leadership aides said House Speaker Newt Gingrich had nothingto do with the decision, despite continued assertions by Democrats that thespeaker is directing the impeachment process.
"The Democrats would like to make Starr the issue, make process,procedure, Peter Rodino, Mark McGwire, they'd like to make a lot of things theissue other than what we're looking at," Hyde fumed. "We have striven mightilyto be fair."
Committee aides yesterday offered more details of the materials fromStarr's investigation scheduled for release Thursday, which will involve farless information than previously reported. Instead of the tens of thousands ofpages promised last week, the panel will release several thousand pages --roughly one-tenth of the documents Starr sent to Congress.
Most of the material being withheld by the committee came from federalagencies such as the Department of Defense or the Secret Service in responseto the special prosecutor's broad subpoenas, and was at most only tangentiallylinked to the Clinton inquiry, a Republican judiciary committee investigatorsaid.
Hyde's overtures yesterday may be less than meets the eye, Democrats said,again complaining they were not consulted on any of the decisions.
Democrats had hoped to search Starr's evidence to determine how theindependent counsel persuaded Attorney General Janet Reno to expand hisWhitewater probe into the Lewinsky matter. Hyde said instead the bipartisanteam of committee lawyers will look only at evidence related directly to thepresident's sexual relationship with the former White House intern and anyefforts ,, to cover it up.
A Judiciary Committee spokeswoman, Michelle Morgan, said Charles T. Canadyof Florida, chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution, will try toconvene the hearing before the House votes next week on whether to conveneimpeachment hearings. But he may not have time. And any hearing will certainlycome after the full Judiciary Committee has already voted on the impeachmentquestion.
"It's still putting the cart before the horse," said Judiciary CommitteeDemocrat Jerrold Nadler of New York, who said the hearing should be held bythe full committee, and members should have to lay out and vote on exactlywhich of Starr's 11 charges against the president are impeachable.
Ultimately, Hyde's most important overture to the Democrats may have beenhis offer to share subpoena power with the lead Democrat, John Conyers Jr. ofMichigan. During the Watergate investigation, Democrats could block Republicansubpoenas, but Hyde strongly intimated he would like Democrats to haveconsiderably more power to help Clinton lay out his case.
"I don't want unilateral anything. I want him to share in that" subpoenapower, Hyde said. "I want the president to be able to call witnesses. I wantthis to be as fair as humanly possible, without opening ourselves up to suchdelay and obstruction that we can't proceed."