A Test of Credibility For House Inquiry

If enough Democrats vote for impeachment hearings today, public skepticism may abate.

The US House of Representatives is expected today to approve a formal impeachment inquiry about President Clinton, driving forward a momentous process that holds grave yet uncertain consequences for the nation.

As few as a score or as many as 100 Democrats could defy their party's urgent calls for unity and vote for the impeachment hearings. The final number will mark a test of two key issues. First, whether Democratic support for the president has eroded greatly. And second, how bipartisan - and therefore legitimate in the public eye - is the decision to plunge ahead with a full-blown impeachment inquiry.

The question of legitimacy is especially critical in light of the gap between how the public and the GOP-led Congress view the charges against Mr. Clinton.

Indeed, on the eve of the vote, leading Republicans expressed bewilderment over polls showing that many Americans see the scandal largely as a pathetic fiasco but not an impeachable offense. In contrast, many Republicans and some Democrats consider Clinton's actions as felonies that, if unpunished, could undermine the nation's most sacred law.

"I'm still baffled why the numbers stay as they do," said House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R), commenting on polls showing Americans' dismissiveness toward the scandal. If the president is to be impeached, Representative Hyde agreed, the decision must ultimately win popular support and "has to be bipartisan."

Yet with today's vote, the Republican-led House is widely expected to brush aside public-opinion polls as well as Democratic lobbying for a less-serious form of rebuke such as censure, and - for now - place the nation squarely on the road to removing Clinton from office.

"This makes the 'censure plus' discussion moot," says Garrison Nelson, a professor of politics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The idea of censure plus involves censure, plus some other type of punishment such as a fine.

A longer investigation?

The vote will also likely quash once and for all Democratic efforts to secure a more narrowly defined, short-term investigation of Clinton's alleged offenses. Instead, it will throw open the door to a lengthy, open-ended inquiry favored by Republicans and modeled after the 1974 Watergate hearings "to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist" to impeach Clinton.

Without such limits, House impeachment hearings would not necessarily be confined to information contained in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report delivered to Congress Sept. 9. Besides the obstruction of justice and perjury charges linked to the Monica Lewinsky affair, the committee could look into Whitewater, "Travelgate," "Filegate," or campaign financing of the 1996 election.

No second vote on scope

House Democrats are not expected to have the opportunity, as did their colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, to vote for an alternative proposal to limit the scope of the inquiry and have it end by Nov. 25. The vote in the Judiciary Committee was along strict party lines - 16 to 21 - fueling charges of rampant partisanship in the committee proceedings.

On Tuesday, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas effectively ruled out the possibility of allowing Democrats to present a clear-cut alternative today to the Republican resolution, indicating that debate on the Democrats' proposal would be limited to only one hour.

As a result, House Democrats will face the far more difficult choice of either backing the more sweeping Republican inquiry or being seen as not supporting any further investigation - with the possible risk, as November elections fast approach, of inviting criticism from constituents.

Already a handful of Democrats, including most notably members of the conservative "Blue Dog" faction such as Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi and Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, have stated their intention to vote for the Republican resolution. Members of the party's moderate "New Democrat" wing are also believed to be leaning toward "yes" votes on the measure.

Today, as the White House - and nation - await congressional hearings and another parade of witnesses, the key question remaining is how wide-ranging the inquiry will actually be.

For their part, leading Republicans such as Judiciary chairman Hyde, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, and others have left open the possibility of looking beyond the scope of the Starr report and the president's affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. They may also probe evidence of potentially more serious illegalities - including campaign-finance abuses - that could warrant the president's removal.

Democrats contend that such an extended investigation would signify a partisan Republican strategy to attempt to dredge up further wrongdoing by the president. The Democrats contend the charges in the Starr report do not rise to the standard of "high crimes and misdemeanors" set down by the Constitution for impeachment.

"Let's not turn this into an impeachment inquiry in search of a high crime," said House Judiciary Committee member Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts.

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