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"It May Blow Up On You"

After months on the sidelines, Congress braces itself for Starr's report. But with November approaching, will anyone dare touch it?

By James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Washington

(TIME, August 10) -- For much of the spring and summer, members of Congress have viewed the Monica Lewinsky scandal with a kind of queasy detachment. "It's as if something has been going on in another room, or maybe next door," says Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut. "You know something's happening over there, but it's not really affecting you."

Those feelings suddenly changed last week after Ken Starr's two most important witnesses finally decided to give testimony, fueling fresh speculation about how quickly Starr would wrap up the case and send it to Congress for possible impeachment hearings. But the members of the House and Senate are no more eager to receive Starr's report now than they were seven months ago. Not surprisingly, Democrats fear that if the President's standing begins to fall, voters may turn against them as well. Republicans face an even more complicated predicament. They know that no matter how tempting it may be to pile on the President, the possibility of a public backlash--and the loss of their 11-seat majority in the House of Representatives this November--is too great a risk. "It's like pulling the pin out of a hand grenade," says John Boehner, one of the top Republicans in the House. "It may blow up on you."

Never mind how many incriminating facts Starr may have amassed or how sound the prosecutor's legal reasoning may be; once the case arrives on Capitol Hill, politics, not the law, becomes paramount. Congress is not a grand jury. Approval ratings are as important as tape recordings, sound bites as powerful as subpoenas.

The ultimate jurors are the constituents in every member's district or state. That's particularly true in the House, where, according to the Constitution, any impeachment process must begin and where all 435 seats will be contested in November. Which is why Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spent part of the past four months trying to work out a process for dealing with a report from Starr that maximizes the potential political benefits for Republicans while shielding them from charges of excessive partisanship.

It's a balance Gingrich has had a difficult time finding. When the Lewinsky story broke in January, the Speaker showed surprising restraint given his lashings during earlier Clinton scandals. "I think we should all take a deep breath and wait for the facts," he advised with statesmanlike solemnity.

But that was not to last forever. Under pressure from social conservatives, who were angry at the Republicans' mute response to such putative evidence of Clinton's moral turpitude, Gingrich by April had reverted to form, accusing the President of "lawbreaking" and swearing he'd never deliver another speech without mentioning the Clinton investigations. The G.O.P. base loved the return of the old, attack-happy Newt, but Gingrich, who is considering a run for President in 2000, saw his already low personal-approval ratings take a dive. And so, since mid-July, the Speaker has been dismissing questions about impeachment with feigned indifference. "I won't pay any attention to it," he told the newspaper Roll Call recently. "If the word begins with i, you talk to [Henry Hyde]."

Which is a fortunate thing for the G.O.P., because Hyde, the chairman of the committee that would preside over any impeachment proceedings, is a rare breed of House Republican: a conservative ideologue who nevertheless commands the respect of Democrats for his fairness. Though Gingrich once flirted with the idea of setting up a special committee to receive what is likely to be the first impeachment report ever filed by an independent prosecutor, he was beaten back by Hyde and other Republicans who insisted that "regular order" be followed. With Starr now likely to finish his investigation in the run-up to November's midterm elections, Hyde will be forced to make a series of politically loaded decisions. "We're going to have to look at the calendar and do some deep thinking," he said last week.

The process will probably begin with a phone call from Starr to Gingrich with the news that a report is on its way. Since Congress is scheduled to be in town for just four more weeks between now and November, actual impeachment proceedings almost certainly couldn't happen this year. But if Starr has a report to deliver, the House will be forced to deal with it. "We can't just sit on it until January," says a senior House Republican. And so, within days of Starr's notification, the Speaker will bring a resolution to the House floor limiting access to Starr's findings to the members of Hyde's Judiciary Committee. Then the independent counsel will deliver the report, and leaks will be inevitable.

What would happen next is unclear. Members of the Republican leadership, like Boehner, have suggested that Hyde could hold "informational hearings," bringing forward a full parade of witnesses, in order to make Starr's findings public without having to proceed directly to an impeachment inquiry. But Hyde said last week that "I don't know what the hell an informational hearing is." And others close to the process predicted that the committee was more likely to release a sanitized summary of Starr's report.

In either case no more action would be taken before the elections. And if the public yawns, the whole matter would die there. But if Starr's evidence turns Americans against the President, the G.O.P., if it keeps control of the House, would take the next step toward impeachment, bringing a vote to the floor calling for an actual inquiry sometime early next year.

This close to an election, Democrats have little choice but to stick by their President, no matter what they may think privately. Relieved at Clinton's decision not to fight Starr's subpoena, they are crossing their fingers that the President's high poll numbers can withstand any new revelations. In a private meeting last week House minority leader Dick Gephardt advised fellow Democrats to "remain calm" and "try to avoid getting drawn into answering hypothetical questions" about things like Monica's stained dress. "We'll get through this and move on to the next thing," he said optimistically.

In the Senate the week's barrage of disclosures wore away at already scandal-fatigued members. But the news that the whole unseemly affair might be edging toward a conclusion seemed to liberate some Democrats from their normal, cautious selves. New Jersey's Robert Torricelli, Clinton's most vocal defender, predicted that while the President "may be headed for a political firestorm," he'll survive because of "the public's deeply felt antagonism toward Starr." And Delaware's Joseph Biden, declaring that "the whole thing is bizarre," offered the unsolicited advice that the President ought to come clean and count on the public to forgive him. "I would make peace with my wife, and I'd stand up and say, 'Here is the deal,'" Biden opined. "Even though it might make Starr's case, no Congress would ever impeach him."

For the next month at least, impeachment is something the 535 members of the House and Senate won't have to confront. They'll be at home enjoying their August recess with their constituents, most of whom say they long ago lost interest in the President's alleged sexual escapade. While Starr will be bringing Lewinsky and the President before the grand jury--and then penning his final report--members of Congress will be out on the trail, working hard to change the subject. They'll promise to fix health care, improve education and cut taxes. And when they come back to Washington, they will hope to have built up enough trust among their constituents so that if Starr's grenade explodes, they won't be knocked off their feet.


From a TIME/CNN poll

Would you want your Representative to support or oppose an investigation into whether to impeach Clinton?

Support 42%
Oppose 49%


The Pit Bulls Of The Judiciary Committee

Barney Frank

The witty--and cranky--liberal stalwart has likened Ken Starr to Captain Ahab, Melville's relent-less hunter. His formidable rhetoric has given frequent target Newt Gingrich fits, leaving him to plead, "Barney Frank hates me!"

Bob Barr

The Georgia Republican has made a crusade out of calling for Clinton's impeachment and even sponsored a bill to begin such an inquiry. He complains that government has been "cheapened" and character "denigrated"

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 10, 1998

Tick, Tock, Tick... ...Talk
"It May Blow Up On You"
The Democrat Who Would Pursue Clinton
What's in Starr's Files?
Clinton's Options
Magaret Carlson: With Women Like These...
The Art of Presidential Prevarication
Breakdown On The Road To History
The Notebook: No Monica Tell All?
The Hunt For Karadzic
Viewpoint: Says He's Nobody's "Slave"

TIME magazine
Tick, Tock, Tick... ...Talk

The Democrat Who Would Pursue Clinton

What's in Starr's Files?

Clinton's Options

Magaret Carlson: With Women Like These...

The Art of Presidential Prevarication

Breakdown On The Road To History

The Notebook: No Monica Tell All?


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