Next Impeachment Step: How Partisan?

Full House takes up decision on Clinton inquiry, but strategies will come after Nov. 3.

The formal impeachment process against President Clinton is under way - but how far or how fast it proceeds probably won't be clear until after the November election.

Between now and then, possibly as soon as Oct. 8 or 9, the entire House of Representatives will decide whether to begin its own full-fledged impeachment inquiry, complete with hearings and witnesses. The first step toward that end came Oct. 5, when the House Judiciary Committee voted to send the Republican proposal for an inquiry to the full House.

So far, the process has remained largely partisan, as expected. The 21-to-16 Judiciary tally fell strictly along party lines - a relatively safe way for each member to play that vote.

But in less than four weeks, all 435 House seats will be up for election, presenting each party with its future partisan layout. The size of the GOP majority, in the end, may help each side determine what it needs to do to oust or save the president, particularly if the proceedings continue to divide by party.

"I think the Republicans don't know what they're going to do until after the election," says Allan Lichtman, a Washington-based presidential analyst.

Still, there were signs that even in the Judiciary Committee meeting, some members are thinking outside the party-line box. Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina ruminated out loud about what the appropriate action is, suggesting that censure may be the ultimate outcome. "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place? I don't know," said Mr. Graham, referring to Clinton's sexual affair and efforts to hide it.

Another committee member, Rep. Howard Berman (D) of California, reminded fellow Democrats that a Democratic-controlled Congress voted for the independent-counsel law and that Clinton's own attorney general, Janet Reno, allowed independent counsel Kenneth Starr to look into the president's relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas found significance in the fact that Democrats proposed alternatives for an inquiry. Each was shot down along party lines, but they did put every Democrat on record as favoring some form of inquiry.

The proposal sent to the full House calls for an open-ended investigation, modeled after the Watergate probe 25 years ago. Democrats had hoped to limit the length and breadth of the inquiry.

Framework for Democrats

But significantly, in testimony before the committee Oct. 5, Democratic investigator Abbe Lowell didn't challenge the core allegations regarding Clinton's conduct - perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. Rather, he argued the charges don't merit impeachment, and that it's premature to discuss them before standards of impeachment are established.

"The Democrats are running a risk in basically not challenging whether the president committed perjury," says Earl Black, a Houston-based political scientist. "They're conceding that, and then wanting to argue whether that is up to impeachment standards."

Stanley Brand, a former House Democratic counsel, defends the Democrats' approach. He believes Mr. Starr has unearthed all he could about the Lewinsky matter, and setting standards of impeachment is the biggest task remaining.

"Yes, [Clinton] lied about a private affair to save himself from embarrassment," says Mr. Brand. But "not all lies are perjurious, and not all perjuries are impeachable."

Republican strategies

But if Mr. Lowell, the Democratic counselor, took any risks in his argument, then the Republicans' chief counsel, David Schippers, may have been doing the same. He repackaged Starr's roster of 11 impeachable offenses - eliminating one and adding more - to come up with 15. In endorsing Starr's basic conclusions, he is going against public opinion, which continues to support the president's job performance and oppose impeachment.

Representative Smith insists Mr. Schippers - a registered Democrat who says he voted for Clinton twice - wasn't paying attention to opinion polls when he examined the information before him. But committee members, who care deeply what their voters think, may be a different story. The calculation for how to play the Clinton scandal may have as much to do with the November vote as with anything else.

Even though polls show more than 60 percent of American adults support Clinton's presidency, many of those people aren't expected to vote. Polls, in fact, predict only about one-third of eligible voters will turn out - and it will be the activist wings of each party that do so.

In travels around the US, says Greg Valliere, a political analyst for Schwab Washington Research Group, "you meet a lot of people who think this is overdone, that the Republicans are forced to be deferential to ... the religious right."

But if the fall elections produce mixed results - perhaps a small net gain in the GOP majority - that will leave Republicans with an unclear path for how to proceed.

One thing, however, seems certain, analysts say. If the House votes to impeach the president largely along party lines, there's no way the more-cautious Senate will convict him and throw him out of office.

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