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Foursome on key House panel will set tone for hearings stemming from Starr report

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1998


As a boy growing up poor in Depression-era Chicago, Henry Hyde sometimes killed time reading his mother's philosophy books, pondering essays by St. Thomas Aquinas on the origins of truth.

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The early lessons stayed with Mr. Hyde.

Today, the bookish, white-haired chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is vowing to uphold fact over partisan zeal as he presides over what could be this Congress's most important act: deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

"Politics must be checked at the door," stressed Hyde. The Illinois Republican promised to avoid a "witch hunt" as his 34-member committee - manned by some of the most vocal partisans in the House - prepared to receive the report on Mr. Clinton delivered to Congress Wednesday by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Sobered as they suddenly faced the 36 boxes of documents - and the full gravity of the historic task that for months has remained an abstraction - House leaders spoke seriously of their constitutional obligations. They appeared to recognize that any brazenly partisan proceedings could fundamentally undermine Americans' trust in Congress.

Safeguarding that trust now rests, at least initially, in the hands of Hyde and three other top Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who will command Americans' attention as they comb through the Starr report in coming weeks and months.

The reputations of the four leading committeemen - especially Hyde - bodes well for fairness and preventing a political free-for-all over the report, analysts say. Still, much will depend on how steadfastly Hyde and others can resist inevitable pressures from party leaders and extremists.

Hyde's committee is pivotal because it has first responsibility in the House for determining whether Clinton's conduct, as described by prosecutors, amounts to an impeachable offense defined by the Constitution as "high crimes and misdemeanors." Mr. Starr's office says the report contains "substantial" information that may constitute grounds for impeachment. The president is being investigated for, among other things, allegedly committing perjury and obstructing justice to cover up his extramarital relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

A 24-year veteran of Congress with a flair for oratory to match his hulking figure, Hyde is known as an old-fashioned legislator who respects institutions and disdains the radicalism of the "Republican revolution." In a sign of his regard for the presidency, Hyde hangs an autographed photo of Clinton on his office wall.

Although a staunch conservative strongly opposed to abortion, Hyde has proved himself an independent thinker by breaking with party ranks on hot-button issues such as term limits and gun control, analysts say. Above all, friends and critics alike call the former Chicago trial lawyer an evenhanded man of principle.

"[Hyde] is honorable and fair and a man of integrity," says Kate Michelman, who has battled with Hyde for years as president of the Washington-based National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Henry Hyde can be counted on to ... keep the interest of the presidency and nation's well-being at the forefront."

Even Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a stalwart liberal and the No. 2 Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, agrees that "if [House] Speaker [Newt Gingrich] doesn't interfere unduly, Henry will run a pretty fair proceeding."

Barney Frank: a watchdog

As another key player on the committee, Representative Frank is likely to play a watchdog role to promote a balanced weighing of the evidence presented in the Starr report, analysts say.