Impeachment Tactics

White House lawyers and House Judiciary Committee Democrats face some basic decisions on how to approach the upcoming impeachment inquiry.

Buoyed by election results, they may seek to have it both ways: on the one hand demanding the inquiry be concluded rapidly; on the other, threatening to one-up Republicans by calling Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and independent counsel Kenneth Starr to testify. That's hardly a recipe for a quick resolution.

Democrats also send mixed signals on the breadth of the inquiry. As the House voted to approve it, they criticized Republicans for pushing an open-ended investigation. Now, senior committee Democrat John Conyers of Michigan is demanding the documents used to expand Judge Starr's probe into the Lewinsky matter, while others question Starr's spending. That doesn't sound like a limited inquiry.

Instead, it's part of the strategy of White House and committee Democrats to divert attention from the president's alleged wrongdoing and make Starr the issue. That's not what impeachment hearings are supposed to be about, but it's not a new tack. Mr. Conyers has written Attorney General Janet Reno several letters over the past year demanding she investigate Starr's conduct. To date, she has not. A federal judge, however, is looking into alleged improper leaks from the independent counsel's office.

Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, who has said all along he wants to wrap this up by the end of the year, may well call Starr as a witness. But the Democrats should be careful how they treat him. Until now the rules of his job have prevented the prosecutor from defending himself. An open hearing will be a different matter, and hostile Democrats could find the tables turned.

But this case is not about Ken Starr or his conduct as independent counsel. That issue is properly left to the Justice Department and the presiding judge. It's about whether the president committed perjury, obstruction of justice, or witness-tampering, and, if so, whether those are impeachable offenses.

White House lawyers complain that without a definition of impeachable offenses, they don't know what to defend the president against. Not so. The charges are clearly set out in the Starr report and the committee investigator's review. A hearing on impeachable offenses is set for Monday, but spinning its wheels inconclusively for weeks on such arguments is also no way for the committee to get this over with.

It's unclear how the inquiry will turn out. But it's easy to see how it can be done quickly and efficiently: The White House should stop playing games and concede the facts in the Starr report. The committee can then debate the report and its mass of supplementary information and decide whether to recommend impeachment.

A duly appointed independent counsel has laid charges against the president in the constitutionally correct forum. The accusations are not insubstantial. The House has a duty to investigate. In doing so, the committee will have to consider not only the facts of the case, but the political reality that as things now stand, the Senate will probably not vote to convict the president. All the more reason to move ahead with all deliberate speed.

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