Clinton's Speech Erodes His Standing on the Hill

His attack on Starr angers GOP, causes some Democrats to distance themselves.

President Clinton and many others may want to move on from the Monica Lewinsky matter. But there's a long way to go before that happens.

Not only could independent counsel Kenneth Starr recall Mr. Clinton for further testimony, but unfavorable signs are emerging for the president in Congress.

With his attack on Mr. Starr at the end of his Monday speech, the president seriously undercut whatever good he may have done himself by his apology.

The president weakened his position with the GOP Congress, probably reducing already slim chances of getting his education, child-care, and health-care proposals enacted into law. Some say he may also have damaged Democrats' chances to recapture the House in the fall elections.

Clinton's admission of an inappropriate relationship with Ms. Lewinsky as well as his comments about Starr angered many on the Hill. Several Republicans, including House whip Tom DeLay of Texas and Sens. Dan Coats of Indiana and John Ashcroft of Missouri, issued outright calls for the president to resign. They were joined by Democratic Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania.

But GOP leaders are telegraphing their restless troops to hold their fire.

"I think that everyone would be best served if they waited for Judge Starr's report and found out what all the facts were," Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said. "We'd all like to get that done as quickly as possible."

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri and his Senate counterpart, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, issued lukewarm statements expressing disappointment with the president's conduct. At the same time, both backed Clinton's call for an early end to the investigation.

"It has gone on too long at far too great a cost to the presidency and the American taxpayer," Senator Daschle said. "There is a country to run, a farm crisis, international problems that mount each day, and other serious issues ... that must be addressed."

Other Democrats were more blunt: "My faith in the president's credibility has been shattered," said a reportedly furious Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California.

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the No. 2 Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee continued to defend Clinton. "He owed the people an apology and he gave it," he told the Associated Press. "No matter what he said before, I cannot believe that would rise under any definition to perjury or impeachment."

IF Starr's report reaches Congress in mid-September as expected, it could not come at a worse time - just as lawmakers are preparing to adjourn and smack in the middle of the congressional election campaign. Both parties are wary of what the report may contain and how it will play in Peoria.

But Republican leaders are bending over backward to insist that the matter transcends politics, and that they will act in the best interests of the nation. "It is our constitutional duty to provide a fair, full, and independent review of these facts in their proper context," says Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. Representative Hyde, along with Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, would handle any inquiry based on the Starr report.

A knowledgeable House GOP staffer points out that there is no established procedure for handling the report. "This has never been done before. We're not even sure which door to bring it in."

But he outlines a probable scenario: The House would vote to refer the report to the Judiciary Committee, probably with a rule allowing only committee members access to the report. Under normal House rules, any legislator could see the materials.

The Judiciary Committee would then begin a review. The aide denies suggestions the review will be purposely delayed until after the elections. "That would be patently political," he says. "How long it takes depends on how much material [the report] contains" - and how complex the issues it raises. Still, it appears doubtful the committee could complete that process before Congress adjourns in early October, meaning the next Congress would have to take it up as one of its first orders of business.

Only after such a review would the whole House vote on whether there are sufficient grounds to begin an impeachment inquiry. After that investigation, the committee would either vote to drop it or pass a bill of impeachment.

That point has been reached only twice in American history: President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the committee voted to impeach. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House and acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

If the House voted to impeach, the full Senate would try the president. A two-thirds vote is required to convict. But it's unlikely the matter would get that far.

One outside observer says Clinton could get off with a slap on the wrist. "I think there's going to be a resolution of censure," says Robert Dallek, presidential historian in Washington.

* Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report in Washington.

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