Starr's Slow Pace Boosts Clinton

Clinton's team stalls investigation with legal tactics. But Congress won't even be ready for the case until fall.

The White House doesn't call it delay tactics, but the work of President Clinton's legal team has the same effect - slowing the Monica Lewinsky investigation so that Mr. Clinton is likely spared from possible congressional impeachment hearings until after the November elections.

By fighting subpoenas and invoking claims of executive privilege, lawyer-client privilege, and spousal privilege, the White House counsel has been able to slow independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr enough to buy the president a significant chunk of time.

"It's probably over for Starr in this session of Congress," says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at American University.

In a case with as much political charge as this one, timing is just as important as facts. And timing - as it relates to legal procedure in the courts and the political schedule of fall elections - is not working in Mr. Starr's favor.

While Ms. Lewinsky's experienced, new Washington lawyers may work out an immunity deal in exchange for her testimony, she still suffers a huge credibility problem. No matter what she might tell the independent prosecutor - if indeed she reaches a deal at all - he would need to corroborate her story with testimony from others.

But getting testimony from other key witnesses will not happen as quickly as Starr had hoped. Starr has been in a high-stakes battle with both the Secret Service and the White House to force agents and senior Clinton aides to testify before his grand jury. A federal judge ruled recently that despite Secret Service claims of a special privilege, and despite the application of executive privilege to Clinton's aides, everyone must testify.

But both the Justice Department (which is arguing the case for the Secret Service) and the White House appealed.

To speed things along, Starr attempted to skip the normal legal course, where these cases would be heard in appellate courts, and instead requested expedited review from the highest court in the land - where at least one of the cases was likely to end up anyway.

Waiting for slow wheels of justice to turn

Last week, however, the Supreme Court decided the cases did not deserve its urgent review, and said they must go through the appellate court. All parties requested expedited action in the appellate courts, which was granted Friday.

But even then, it is unlikely the courts will rule until July. And if one or the other side is disappointed with the results, the appeal will likely go on to the Supreme Court, which won't meet until October.

This kind of schedule makes it virtually impossible for Starr to file a complete report to Congress on his findings this summer, and it's even a stretch to get it done by Oct. 9, when Congress is slated to adjourn until a new Congress is elected.

But even if Starr shared his findings with Congress soon, say in an interim report submitted by mid-July at the latest, he would be up against the pressure of looming elections, say political analysts. And unless the case is ironclad, lawmakers won't want to risk angering voters by acting against a president who is linked in the public's mind with economic prosperity.

No time for Starr

First, Congress won't have time to deal with this issue, says Charles Cook, a political analyst. Summer break takes up most of August and the first week of September, and then adjournment is a month later.

"They won't have time. They'll have [other] things to do before they leave town," says Mr. Cook.

Second, they won't find it politically expedient to make the time. "Voters aren't paying attention to this issue. It would take some pretty amazing revelations before the public became engaged," he says. Even confirmation of the allegations so far, which Cook labeled "howitzers" as opposed to mere "smoking guns," might not be enough to inspire lawmakers on to impeachment hearings.

Congress could stall

No matter when Starr drops a report on Congress, lawmakers are not required to act on it. If it comes close to election day, says American University's Rozell, "there are ways [for Congress] to delay without appearing to delay."

They include setting up a review process to decide what to do with the findings, deciding who would be involved in the review process, interviewing staff, and so on.

These scenarios work well for President Clinton because they delay the impeachment process, if there ever is one.

And if Starr does not deliver his report until after election day, there is a chance he will deliver it to a newly Democratic-controlled House - though it's a slim chance.

Starr himself appears unimpressed by the election-day timetable.

Plowing ahead with his "just the facts, ma'am" attitude, he has said on more than one occasion that he is in this investigation for the long haul. If that means working with the next Congress, sobeit.

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