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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

"We Fight Like Cats & Dogs"

Clinton's case has landed before a House Judiciary Committee where zealous partisans rule the day

By Adam Cohen

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- If this was bipartisanship," Barney Frank sputtered after Democrats lost yet another vote in the House Judiciary Committee, "the Taliban wins a medal for religious tolerance." But as long as awards are being handed out, Frank should get an Emmy for standing in front of the TV cameras and managing to look so surprised. It didn't take last week's string of straight-party votes--on everything from which evidence to release to the ground rules for impeachment--to prove what most of Capitol Hill already knows. Clinton's fate lies in the hands of one of the most doggedly partisan committees in all of Congress.

The House Judiciary Committee hasn't even begun to get down to substance, but verdicts-by-sound-bite from its members are already rolling in. Republican Bill McCollum has declared himself "shocked and disgusted" by the apparent "lurid sexual behavior" detailed in the Starr report. Democrat Maxine Waters has blasted Ken Starr, whose report the committee will be weighing, as "the poster boy for unethical prosecutors." Republican bomb thrower Bob Barr has attacked Clinton's "systemic abuses" of the "political process" and demanded an inquiry into his impeachment--and that was last year, before the Monica Lewinsky scandal even broke.

What's with these guys? In recent years the House Judiciary Committee has become an ideological rodeo. Its everyday agenda is heavy on such hot-button issues as late-term abortion, school prayer, gun control and affirmative action. The subject matter has done a good job of attracting true believers from both sides. "We're terribly polarized," says a staff member with a tinge of pride. "We fight like cats and dogs." Prominent Republicans with a cause include Charles Canady, father of the English-as-the-official-language bill, and Barr, an anti-gun control crusader with close ties to the National Rifle Association. On the left are some of Congress's strongest civil rights partisans, including Waters and Texan Sheila Jackson Lee. The committee has had some low-key bipartisan successes in areas such as court reform and defining intellectual-property rights in the cyber age, but they haven't got as much attention as the politically dangerous wedge issues that make up the committee's steady diet.

Most moderate members of Congress would prefer a long stint on the surface transportation subcommittee. The Judiciary Committee's incendiary issues make its members inviting targets for special-interest attack ads, which can be treacherous for members from competitive districts. And since the committee doesn't even confirm federal judges, as its Senate counterpart does, it's almost entirely patronage free. At least on surface transportation, a member could get a new bus line for his home district.

The upshot is that the committee is a Sharks-and-Jets mix. Until the recent addition of Mary Bono, the Republicans were all white, all Christian and all male. More than half are from the South, and only one is from the Northeast. The 16 Democrats include five blacks, five Jews, three women and one openly gay man. As a group they voted with the liberal Americans for Democratic Action more than 90% of the time.

This toxic mix means that committee members are already happily screaming past one another on the questions put before them by the Starr report. They will find occasions to fight over almost everything, notably about how much the committee will rely on the Starr report for its decisions. Chairman Henry Hyde has said there is no need to "reinvent the wheel." But Frank has characterized the report as "the most negative case possible." Will the committee call its own witnesses? Will it ask Clinton or Lewinsky to testify? Should it consider censure or limit itself to impeachment? In the no-rules world of impeachment, the committee will even have to decide what standard of proof to use. Will it be beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing evidence or something else entirely?

And then there is the ultimate question of whether to impeach. If last week is any guide, a lot more straight party votes may lie ahead. But proceeding with a matter as important as impeachment by strict party-line votes could be a mistake. "You can't run impeachment as a partisan matter," says University of Rochester political-science professor Richard Fenno. "For either party to ram impeachment through on the basis of a majority would not be a very happy solution for the country in general and for the party that does it."

What is the alternative? Congress watchers hark back to a gentler age, when New Jersey Democrat Peter Rodino presided over the Watergate-era House Judiciary Committee and its soberly bipartisan center. Several of that committee's key votes were unanimous, and that was deliberate. There was enough goodwill among members to keep secret the special prosecutor's detailed "road map" to the evidence rather than turn it into political fuel by putting it on the airwaves. In the impeachment debate that followed, a group of moderate Southern Democrats and liberal Republicans--including the future Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, then a Maine Congressman--laid out the pros and cons, agonized publicly and ultimately decided to move against the President. Committee Democrats and Republicans had some run-ins--including one over whether the Republican minority could issue subpoenas--but they were resolved without bloodshed.

Today's Judiciary Committee can't even agree on the chairman's political comportment. Hyde's admirers expect him to follow in the Rodino tradition. He has great personal integrity, they say, and is respected by members of both parties for staying above the political fray. Not even the dustup over his decades-old affair--and Republican suspicions that the White House was involved in dredging it up--should affect his fairness and intellectual honesty, say his supporters. But Democrats grumble that the past few weeks have finally exposed Hyde's partisan instincts. They claim that he has a radical antiabortion agenda--his most famous namesake is the Hyde amendment banning federal funding of most Medicaid abortions--and is too eager to do Newt Gingrich's bidding. "It's just not worked out," Frank says of Hyde's tenure in the Starr-report era. "Whether it's because the Republican leadership has overridden him or what, I don't know, but Henry has not been bipartisan."

But even if Hyde proves Frank right, other members of the committee may surprise the chairman with their independence. Even this Judiciary may have a swing bloc, albeit a small one. On the Republican side, arch-conservative Lindsey Graham of South Carolina could play a critical role. He has already suggested he doesn't think Clinton's lie in the Paula Jones case was material, and has cautioned against releasing too much sexually explicit evidence too fast. Graham has clashed often with the House leadership. Just last week he said, "I don't let [Gingrich] drive my train." James Rogan is close to the Republican leadership--he was tapped by Gingrich to prepare a report on previous House inquiries into Presidents. But he is known for getting along well with Democrats and could be part of a bipartisan bloc. As for Democrats, Californian Howard Berman is a respected lawyer who is close to the Democratic leadership. He has so far avoided commenting on the Starr report, but when he does, his words will carry weight. Zoe Lofgren, a Northern California liberal, appears strongly set against impeachment. If she ends up defending Clinton, she could be an influential female voice in his behalf. On the other hand, Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, who has called Clinton's actions "indefensible, inexcusable and wrong," and Wisconsinite Tom Barrett, who has said he expects Clinton to be at least reprimanded or censured, could have real influence if they begin to drift into the anti-Clinton camp.

When this is all over, history will judge not only Clinton but Congress as well. "Most scholars look back at 1974 and say it was one of the finest chapters in the House of Representatives," says historian Ray Smock. "The question is, Will this be the finest hour of this Congress, or will it go down as a tawdry mess?" If the House Judiciary Committee rises to the challenge, it may get an award of its own: most improved player.

--Reported by John Dickerson and Elaine Shannon/Washington

DEMOCRATS TO WATCH

Barney Frank -- The acerbic Massachusetts liberal is a pro-Clinton point man. He's likely to log some of the best sound bites, such as his charge that Starr didn't have "enough to get the President, so he's seeking to discredit him."

Howard Berman -- A respected California liberal, he works well with chairman Henry Hyde and is likely to be a bridge between the Republicans and Democrats. He has so far been close-mouthed on the Starr report.

Zoe Lofgren -- A former law professor from San Jose, Calif., she has described herself as "very disapproving" of Clinton's behavior. But she could emerge as an important moderate, female defender of the President.

REPUBLICANS TO WATCH

Bill McCollum -- This tough-on-crime Florida lawyer is reserving judgment for now. But McCollum has said he was "shocked" by the Starr report and would vote for impeachment if Clinton is found to have lied while under oath.

James Rogan -- Gingrich tapped this California former prosecutor to draft a report on past House probes of Clinton and other Presidents. A conservative who gets on well with Democrats, he could emerge as a force for consensus.

Bob Barr -- In November, pre-Monica Lewinsky, this Georgia arch-conservative got 17 colleagues to co-sponsor his resolution seeking an impeachment inquiry. Barr is expected to drive the anti-Clinton faction on the committee.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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