Reluctant Heirs of Starr's Probe?

GOP leaders now expect the independent counsel to recommend that the House proceed against Clinton.

House Republicans are bracing themselves for what they now expect independent counsel Kenneth Starr to leave on their doorstep: a report that recommends impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

It's a scenario Speaker Newt Gingrich and House GOP leaders do not relish. While these stalwart Clinton critics have consistently - and sometimes vocally - backed Mr. Starr's Whitewater-Lewinsky probe, they are not eager to take over the role of antagonist against such a popular president, House Republican sources say.

Even so, Mr. Gingrich and other House GOP leaders are convinced that Starr sooner or later will recommend House hearings on impeachment, these sources say. They are already warning members in caucus meetings to get ready.

Publicly, GOP leaders appear unperturbed. "I'm not worried about it," says majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas. "The prosecutor is working, and when he completes his work I'm sure there will be a report and then we'll look at it."

But those behind the scenes express more concern. "To look across this landscape and see the prospect of an impeachment forced on us by the facts is not a happy prospect," says a knowledgeable House GOP source. "Nobody can feel comfortable about precipitating a constitutional crisis."

Under the independent-counsel law, a prosecutor "shall advise the House of Representatives of any substantial and credible information ... that may constitute grounds for an impeachment."

The Constitution provides that the president and other offices can be removed for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." But it does not define what these crimes are, making impeachment essentially a political act. The House has the power to vote a bill of impeachment - in effect an indictment - with trial to take place before the Senate. To remove a president from office, two-thirds of the Senate must vote to do so.

The warnings from their leaders have started Republicans thinking about just what it would take to impeach the president. One member says it would have to be more than just the Monica Lewinsky affair, in which the president is under investigation for an alleged sexual relationship with a young White House aide, lying about it, and encouraging her to lie about it.

"You start thinking about where you would draw the line," this member says. "Would having an affair be enough? No. Would lying about it in a civil case? No. Would obstructing justice in a civil case? Probably not. It would have to be something like that he inflamed the situation with Iraq in order to divert attention from the scandal."

But a second member predicts the Lewinsky saga will not be the basis of Starr's recommendations. "It won't be Monica Lewinsky. It will be something else. The media are going to be blind-sided," this member says.

While sources insist they do not know what evidence Starr has amassed, they believe his report will relate more to issues such as the White House's improper procurement of FBI files, the firings of White House travel office employees, Whitewater or other Arkansas land deals, campaign fund-raising, or another matter.

"The leaders are convinced that Ken Starr is going to dump tons of documents on us," the member says.

These sources say Gingrich has told Republicans that it is better to prepare now for Starr's move than to wait until the independent counsel files his report. House GOP leaders Tuesday transferred $1.5 million from a special reserve fund to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, to hire additional staff, officially to work on Justice Department issues. But the new staff could also be shifted to an impeachment inquiry. Reports say about one-third of the reserve money would go to committee Democrats, led by Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, a harsh Starr critic and the only committee member who sat during 1974 hearings on impeaching President Nixon.

Two of the committee's GOP lawyers served during the Nixon impeachment hearings, bolstering the committee's institutional memory. "Don't worry," says the House GOP source. "If it comes, we'll be ready."

CONGRESSMAN Hyde, a conservative lion and a staunch opponent of abortion, enjoys a great deal of respect among Republicans. He and the ultra-liberal Representative Conyers are said to like each other despite their ideological differences.

"If there is to be an investigation, it will be according to the facts and the facts alone," the House GOP source says. "Hyde has no stake in a particular outcome. He wants, if it is forced upon him, an investigation that is perceived to be credible and fair."

Many members are far from eager to impeach Mr. Clinton, if it comes to that. For one thing, they know he is popular with the public. For another, "Why would we want to make Al Gore president?" asks the second member. That would give the vice president two years to entrench himself in the job and make it harder for a Republican to win in 2000, some observers believe.

Such considerations may have been behind Senate majority leader Trent Lott's suggestions over the weekend that Congress could censure the president rather than impeach him. But the trial balloon drew immediate fire from several of the Mississippian's Republican colleagues.

But not everyone is hesitant about impeachment. Long before anyone had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky, Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia and 17 co-sponsors introduced a resolution that would instruct the Judiciary Committee to begin investigating the various allegations against the president. The bill now has 22 co-sponsors, with Reps. Don Young (R) of Alaska and Tom Campbell (R) of California joining the list last week. It has not been scheduled for a committee vote.

The House has impeached only one president, Andrew Johnson, in 1867. The Senate failed to remove him by one vote. The House Judiciary Committee voted a bill of impeachment against President Nixon in 1974, but he resigned before the bill reached the House floor.

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