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Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress Uneasy

By Dan Carney, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 4) -- The fallout from the dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit against President Clinton demonstrated two things: how much Congress thinks the ground has shifted under Kenneth W. Starr's feet, and how little he thinks it has.

The independent counsel's investigation into sexual allegations involving President Clinton and former White House aides has its origins in the Jones case, which was thrown out April 1 by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright. Starr is probing whether Clinton perjured himself in depositions in the Jones case or pressured others to lie under oath.

With the Jones case's dismissal, some legal experts have suggested Starr would have a harder time both legally and politically making his charges stick.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats and some Republicans took the opportunity to signal to the independent counsel that the onus is now on him to deliver strong impeachment evidence or nothing at all.

With the dismissal of the case that had served as a foundation for Starr's recent inquiries, and with voters apparently ready to move on, few members were in a mood to take the offensive.

"The political atmospherics have changed in the president's favor," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., adding that Congress should put Starr's probe on its back burner and keep it there, unless Starr can present an "open-and-shut case" against the president.

Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., joined the chorus. When Starr finishes his inquiry, Gingrich told ABC News, "we'll know that Clinton has been exonerated, or we'll know that there is a huge mass of material. I don't think there will be any in-between."

There is, however, little indication that Starr is taking his cues from Capitol Hill. The day after the ruling, he struck an almost defiant tone, saying he would not be affected by political considerations.

"Facts and law, that's what we deal with. We don't deal in politics," he said. "We work in the realm of facts and law, and not public relations."

Starr is in an odd position: trying in an apolitical fashion to gather evidence that could lead to an impeachment proceeding against the president -- an action that is, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in "Federalist Paper no. 65," an inherently political act.

Congress' Role

Congress, too, is in an odd position. The Founding Fathers chose it, and not the judiciary, to fill the role of accusing and trying presidents. Yet as Starr's investigation has unfolded, members have been relegated to the roles of spectators and commentators.

Some of the GOP reaction to the ruling indicates that lawmakers are increasingly uncomfortable with that position.

The charges Starr is investigating -- whether the president obstructed justrice, intimidated witnesses and suborned perjury -- in some instances may relate to testimony in the Jones case.

These legal questions may come into play if Starr indicts someone such as Monica S. Lewinsky, the former White House intern who allegedly had an affair with the president, or Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan. But if Starr's target is Clinton himself, the import of the Jones ruling may not lie in the evidence produced; Congress can consider whatever it wants in an impeachment proceeding. Rather, it could be in how members of Congress, and by extension the public, react. If the public takes the ruling as an indication it is time to put Clinton's problems aside and move on to other things, it will be hard for Congress to do much with whatever Starr may send up, political experts say. (Wright's ruling, p. 904)

This is a point Democrats were quick to stress after the decision.

"Mr. Starr for a period of time will continue with his investigation but will soon realize he doesn't have political support," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J.

"I do think [the Jones ruling] will have a bearing," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. "The public has been very skeptical of Starr's, quote, objectivity, quote. Having this case thrown out this way is going to add fuel to that fire, and I think rightfully so."

Given the difficult audience Starr could face on Capitol Hill, he may choose to refocus his efforts in the near future on crimes alleged to have been committed by people other than the president. That would allow him to compile more evidence against Clinton while lowering the volume of speculation about a possible impeachment inquiry.

In this regard, the dismissal of the Jones case may actually help Starr in that he will not have to worry about bumping up against Jones' lawyers. The absence of the case will also reduce the opportunities for the Clinton White House to complain of cooperation between the two camps, or of a conspiracy of forces working against the president.

But even if he focuses his attention elsewhere, Starr will not be immune from politics. Lewinsky's lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, has suggested that the public would not react positively to Starr's four-year probe leading to the indictment of a 24-year-old former intern. Starr's other options might be to renew his efforts against Clinton friend Webster L. Hubbell, a former associate attorney general who served time for tax evasion and mail fraud. The possibility of further indictments may cause him to be more cooperative with Starr.

Starr is clearly more comfortable with legal issues than political ones. Meeting with reporters April 2, he invoked the "Just the facts, ma'am," style of police detective Joe Friday from the old television show "Dragnet."

Friday operated in a television world where right and wrong were as discernable as black and white. Unfortunately for Starr, that is not the current political world he lives in.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 4, 1998

All-But-Doomed Overhaul Bill Meets Its Expected End
On the Hill And At Home, GOP Is Torn By Internal Strife
House Sets Up Battle With Senate In Passing $219 Billion Roads Bill
Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress Uneasy
District Runoff For Gonzalez Seat Could End With Favored Son

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