WASHINGTON — Many Americans may want the House impeachment inquiry to just vanish like a low-rated TV series canceled after the November sweeps. Some members of Congress are increasingly talking of censuring President Clinton as an alternative to an impeachment vote.
But the lawmakers who have their hand on the inquiry's throttle - House Judiciary Committee Republicans - have other ideas. They're redoubling efforts to broaden the case and show a wide-ranging pattern of serious presidential offenses.
In part, their moves appear a frustrated reaction to the president's hard-shell defense. They may also be an attempt to take the probe past the tawdry details of Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and focus on core issues of lying under oath, and obstruction of justice.
Whatever the motive, the abrupt change in strategy has convinced some lawmakers of both parties that the impeachment inquiry is lurching, spewing sparks, and barely under control.
"The process gets stranger and stranger," Rep. Rick Boucher (D) of Virginia told an interviewer Nov. 30.
The most surprising of the attempts to broaden the impeachment inquiry was the sudden addition of campaign finance to the House Judiciary Committee's agenda.
Late on Nov. 30, committee Republicans moved to subpoena FBI Director Louis Freeh and federal prosecutor Charles LaBella and get a look at their closely held memos dealing with allegations of fund-raising irregularities by the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort.
Clinton's campaign cash has been a target of congressional investigators for years, but Judiciary Republicans said they had received a tip that the Freeh-LaBella papers allege criminal acts by Clinton himself.
"The committee is duty bound to investigate that information," said Paul McNulty, a spokesman for panel GOP members.
Republicans wouldn't say what specific allegations they believe the memos contain. But the White House said the papers did not reveal any impeachable acts and added that the Clinton campaign-finance effort was a field plowed by investigators so many times its furrows would swallow a tractor.
Panel Republicans really want to "investigate the president on any subject that they see fit to go after," said Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart on Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee held a carefully scripted hearing on perjury and its consequences - an effort to move the impeachment discussion past details about sex and into an area many Republicans consider the crux of Clinton's alleged misbehavior in the Lewinsky matter.
The hearing featured two women who were punished for lying about sex in civil lawsuits, as Clinton is charged to have done. Chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois said their appearance showed that the panel was not attempting to hold Clinton to a higher standard than that applied to other citizens.
Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, the panel's ranking minority member, replied that perjury in civil suits is common and rarely prosecuted. Anyway, "no one has proven that the president's statements ... were not technically true," he said.
Perjury is clearly a serious matter. At least 115 people are now serving sentences after conviction of perjury in federal court proceedings, say legal experts.
It is a crime that can greatly irritate judges, who consider it something that undermines the whole foundation of the judicial system. And it is common in civil suits, say some experts - too common.
"It's a terrible message to send that this is OK, it's the way the game is played," says Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University.
Other experts say Clinton's alleged lies about his relationship might not have been important enough to have been pursued by a typical prosecutor.
"Even the rules of law require prosecutors to have good judgment," says Jeffrey Abramson, a law professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Meanwhile, Chairman Hyde insists that the impeachment inquiry can stick to its schedule and finish by the end of the year, despite all the fireworks of recent days.
Positions appear to be hardening on both sides of the effort. Hyde and other panel Republicans were clearly angered by Clinton's Nov. 27 answers to the list of 81 questions the panel had submitted to him.
In his reply, Clinton in essence repeated his previous legalistic responses to questions about his behavior. His answers repeatedly referred to previous testimony, and continued to insist that he had not committed perjury by denying a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.