"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
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."
She added: "I have not read the details of who touched who where . . . I may never read that part. I'm trying to find the place where he makes the case that a sex scandal threatens the Constitution."
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) reacted to the report much differently.
"I personally don't care a fig about what he does in his bedroom with his wife or any other sexual partners he may have, but I do care if he lies under oath," he said. "He's lied repeatedly . . . if you don't have the president telling the truth [under oath], how can you expect to have anyone else telling the truth?"
Barton added: "I have [read] enough of the report to believe we should have an impeachment proceeding.
One House Democrat who expects impeachment proceedings is James P. Moran of Virginia. "I can't imagine there not being a vote to go to impeachment hearings," he said.
Moran added that the initial Democratic reaction may not necessarily be a good gauge of how long Democrats will continue to stand by Clinton. He recalled that Democrats continued to express praise and support for then-House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas until shortly before he was forced to resign because of ethics problems.
The mood of the day on Capitol Hill was perhaps best summed up by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).
"I am deeply, deeply troubled by what I have discovered through a brief, cursory perusal of the Starr report," he said. "This is indeed a sad day for our country."
Times staff writers Jodi Wilgoren, Faye Fiore and Erin Trodden contributed to this story.