Uncharted Waters

November's elections will play a big role in the impeachment process

There is "no question that an admission of making false statements to government officials and interfering with the FBI and CIA is an impeachable offense."

Who said that? Law professor Bill Clinton, on Aug. 7, 1974, running for a seat in Congress.

A president should be removed "only for serious misconduct dangerous to the system of government," and not for "general misbehavior."

Who said that? Trent Lott, freshman member of the House Judiciary Committee, around the same time.

Clearly in the current controversy over impeachment, a lot of shoes are on a lot of different feet, or, as the French would say, "Autres temps, autres moeurs" ("different times, different customs").

And then there was the congressman I thought I heard say on television that the drive for impeachment looks like a runaway train in uncharted waters.

Uncharted this process certainly is. The Republican House majority investigating a Democratic president tries to offer the mirror image of the Democratic majority investigating a Republican president in 1974. Chairman Henry Hyde relies on the chairman Peter Rodino precedents in refusing to accept time limits or a narrowed scope. The language of the enabling resolution is almost word-for-word the same.

But one big difference is that the Nixon investigation was completed well before the 1974 election and the Clinton inquiry will not really get under way until after the election on Nov. 3. That election may have an important bearing on how long and how vigorously the investigation will be pursued.

The Democrats have pushed, in vain, for a Thanksgiving deadline. Mr. Hyde has talked, without much conviction, of a year-end wrap-up. Clarity about the road ahead will only come after election day. Opinion polls indicate a certain backlash against the Republicans after the release of the Clinton videotape. That could help a few Democrats in close races. But there are too many issues at stake to call this a referendum on impeachment.

More important to President Clinton's fate is whether the Republicans pick up significantly more than the expected five or six House seats. And especially whether they gain enough Senate seats to bring them, perhaps with some Democratic support, within hailing distance of the 67 votes needed to unseat the president.

That would give the impeachment process a big shot in the arm. But as long as Mr. Clinton can count on 34 Senate votes, the House hearings, aside from stigmatizing the president for his sins, would become an exercise in terminal frustration.

It is at that point that the various proposals for reprimand or rebuke might begin to get serious consideration. What the Republicans have done is to run the impeachment flag up the flagpole and wait until election day to see who salutes.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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