No Derailing, No Delay

Buoyed by public-opinion polls, White House strategists are boldly trying to derail the process by which the House Judiciary Committee will decide whether an impeachment inquiry is warranted.

Gone is the contrition the president expressed earlier. Now his team is accusing committee Republicans of "dragging out" the process .

The political calculation behind the comments of the president, the first lady, and their allies showed when their tacticians blamed Speaker Newt Gingrich, as if he, not Mr. Clinton's seven months of lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair, were responsible for delaying tactics.

Mr. Gingrich sets himself and the GOP up for this kind of accusation when he speculates about drawing other issues into the investigation - even though there's no sign that the independent counsel or any congressional committee has additional relevant evidence of impeachable crimes.

The White House goal is to make it politically dangerous for Republicans to vote for an impeachment inquiry, and force them instead to accept a deal in which the president would be censured and perhaps heavily fined. This is an attempt to decide the case on politics rather than facts and the law. The time may well come when the "censure-plus" option becomes acceptable, but that time is not yet.

The issue, and the country, deserve due process. That means the Judiciary Committee will consider the evidence and decide, by early next week, whether or not to recommend an impeachment inquiry. Based on evidence currently available, an inquiry is merited and is likely to be so voted.

But the president still should benefit from the presumption of innocence until all the facts are known and he has had ample opportunity to present his side of the story. An inquiry should not automatically mean the House will impeach.

Further, it apparently needs saying again: This is not a matter of "sexual McCarthyism." The inquiry should rightly stick to the legal issues: Did the president, sworn to uphold the rule of law, commit perjury in a civil trial or before a grand jury? Did he encourage witnesses to lie and obstruct justice? Did he abuse the power of his office? And, if he did any of those things, is that an impeachable offense?

These are issues on which there should be no rush to judgment. But neither should the case drag on endlessly. Chairman Hyde, who would just as soon get this over with, argues, correctly, for "deliberate speed."

America faces major challenges at home and abroad. Congress should not duck a fair impeachment inquiry. But neither should it be diverted from tackling those challenges.

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