An Impeachment Inquiry

Now that the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee has voted to recommend an impeachment inquiry into President Clinton, the full House will probably follow suit. The only real question is how many Democrats in close election races will feel the need to vote in favor.

It's worth noting that while the panel adopted the resolution on a party-line vote, committee Democrats did not oppose an inquiry; they differed passionately, however, on its timing and scope.

Republicans were right to demand a Watergate-style, open-ended probe that could consider any further evidence of impeachable offenses the committee might receive. Democrats' insistence on a time limit would have invited the kind of run-out-the-clock tactics other inquiries have encountered.

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Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation continues, as do other congressional probes. But while it's quite possible that indictments of lesser officials and others could emerge (Judge Starr already has won 15 convictions), there's no indication yet that any further charges against the president will come forth. That should mean the committee could wrap up its work by New Year's Day, as chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois fervently hopes.

The outlines of the debate are already clear. Majority Republican counsel David Schippers, (incidentally, a lifelong Democrat) says the president lied under oath, tampered with witnesses, and obstructed justice. The integrity of the judicial process is at stake, he argues. Minority counsel Abbe Lowell insists that the allegations, in context, aren't serious enough to impeach and that Starr was overzealous.

Both sides now must set partisanship aside. As their inquiry unfolds, each Republican must ask: If the president were a Republican, would I conclude that lying under oath to cover up adultery is impeachable? Each Democrat must ask: If the president were a Republican, would I be so ready to dismiss his conduct as simply an extramarital affair?

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