Foursome on key House panel will set tone for hearings stemming from Starr report

As a boy growing up poor in Depression-era Chicago, Henry Hyde sometimes killed time reading his mother's philosophy books, pondering essays by St. Thomas Aquinas on the origins of truth.

The early lessons stayed with Mr. Hyde.

Today, the bookish, white-haired chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is vowing to uphold fact over partisan zeal as he presides over what could be this Congress's most important act: deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

"Politics must be checked at the door," stressed Hyde. The Illinois Republican promised to avoid a "witch hunt" as his 34-member committee - manned by some of the most vocal partisans in the House - prepared to receive the report on Mr. Clinton delivered to Congress Wednesday by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Sobered as they suddenly faced the 36 boxes of documents - and the full gravity of the historic task that for months has remained an abstraction - House leaders spoke seriously of their constitutional obligations. They appeared to recognize that any brazenly partisan proceedings could fundamentally undermine Americans' trust in Congress.

Safeguarding that trust now rests, at least initially, in the hands of Hyde and three other top Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who will command Americans' attention as they comb through the Starr report in coming weeks and months.

The reputations of the four leading committeemen - especially Hyde - bodes well for fairness and preventing a political free-for-all over the report, analysts say. Still, much will depend on how steadfastly Hyde and others can resist inevitable pressures from party leaders and extremists.

Hyde's committee is pivotal because it has first responsibility in the House for determining whether Clinton's conduct, as described by prosecutors, amounts to an impeachable offense defined by the Constitution as "high crimes and misdemeanors." Mr. Starr's office says the report contains "substantial" information that may constitute grounds for impeachment. The president is being investigated for, among other things, allegedly committing perjury and obstructing justice to cover up his extramarital relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

A 24-year veteran of Congress with a flair for oratory to match his hulking figure, Hyde is known as an old-fashioned legislator who respects institutions and disdains the radicalism of the "Republican revolution." In a sign of his regard for the presidency, Hyde hangs an autographed photo of Clinton on his office wall.

Although a staunch conservative strongly opposed to abortion, Hyde has proved himself an independent thinker by breaking with party ranks on hot-button issues such as term limits and gun control, analysts say. Above all, friends and critics alike call the former Chicago trial lawyer an evenhanded man of principle.

"[Hyde] is honorable and fair and a man of integrity," says Kate Michelman, who has battled with Hyde for years as president of the Washington-based National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "Henry Hyde can be counted on to ... keep the interest of the presidency and nation's well-being at the forefront."

Even Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a stalwart liberal and the No. 2 Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, agrees that "if [House] Speaker [Newt Gingrich] doesn't interfere unduly, Henry will run a pretty fair proceeding."

Barney Frank: a watchdog

As another key player on the committee, Representative Frank is likely to play a watchdog role to promote a balanced weighing of the evidence presented in the Starr report, analysts say.

"Barney is relentlessly liberal and extraordinarily smart, and that will be good," says Bill Frenzel, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution here and a former GOP congressman from Minnesota. "If the Republicans decide to take any action, they will have to do it carefully or people like Barney Frank will embarrass them."

In an interview, Frank said he'd combat any efforts by Mr. Gingrich to interfere in the Judiciary Committee's work, such as by setting deadlines or limits on witnesses. He agreed with House leaders that the Starr report should be made public.

Known for his razor-sharp wit and parliamentary acumen, the Harvard-educated Frank is famous for his mocking critiques of GOP proposals. During the heady first days of the Republicans' Contract With America, he stood like a sentry at the microphone ready to jump in with jibes.

Despite hitting a low point in his career six years ago with a congressional inquiry into charges stemming from his links to a male prostitute, Frank bounced back. Now serving his ninth term in the House, he is viewed by many as a respected leader of the Democratic opposition.

Clinton is clearly counting on support from Frank and other leading Democrats. Frank confirmed that he recently received a phone call from Clinton, who has spent much of this week trying to brighten his tarnished image and make amends with key party figures.

Frank dismissed as "immensely silly" the suggestion that rifts are forming within the Democratic Party between Clinton loyalists and others, such as House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, who are distancing themselves from the embattled president.

John Conyers: Voice of experience

A third influential House player, ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, brings valuable experience to the job as the only committee member who participated in the impeachment hearings that led to President Nixon's resignation in 1974.

"If you get some shrill voices on the Republican side, Conyers would be one of those who would bring it back to consideration of the law," says Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist.

Representative Conyers has been one of Congress's harshest critics of Starr, calling him one of the "enemies of the nation" and charging him with abuse of power for a "sinister" investigation.

A Detroit native and auto worker's son, Conyers has regularly voted with Clinton, but he has also been willing to break with him on high-profile measures such as welfare reform and the crime bill.

Still, Conyers, who is black, is under pressure to reflect the support that Clinton enjoys among African-Americans, Mr. Walters says. Blacks continue to give the president a favorability rating greater than 90 percent, despite his admission of an improper relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

Another important leader on the GOP side is Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, the third-ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. A lawyer by training, Representative McCollum has a reputation for being articulate, attentive to detail, and - like Hyde - patiently committed to the legislative process. He has regularly parted ways with the most conservative GOP members, including committee colleague Rep. Bob Barr (R) of Georgia.

Yet unlike Hyde, McCollum has not shied from publicly speaking about his willingness to vote for impeachment proceedings if he believes Clinton committed perjury. "If we don't do that, he will have ... undermined the law and we would be setting a terrible precedent," he said recently.

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