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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Get me outta here!

Everybody's saying it--Democrats, Republicans, the President, you! But where's the exit?

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

You want to understand the atmosphere in Washington right now? The place to start is with Samuel Beckett and Waiting for Godot.

Estragon to Vladimir: I can't go on like this.
Vladimir to Estragon: That's what you think.

So there was Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, playing both parts himself last week. As his committee oversaw a grumpy hearing of dueling historians, all debating the question of just what is an impeachable offense, Hyde sighed into his microphone, "God, I'd like to forget all of this." Then he pulled himself together and allowed that Congress had a constitutional duty to go forward anyway.

Go forward it will, at least for a while, though the betting now is that after it's all over, Bill Clinton will still be standing. When the independent counsel Kenneth Starr makes his appearance this week before Hyde's committee, in the first congressional impeachment hearings since Watergate, Democrats will be hoping that Starr has no new bombshell. So will most Republicans. What both sides want badly is to avoid anything that would compel them to prolong an impeachment process that nearly everyone wants to be done with. The question is, how?

Half a dozen House Republicans, including conservative rebel Mark Souder of Indiana, have already said that on the basis of present evidence they would not vote to impeach. New York Representative Peter King says "at least 35 or 40" of his fellow Republicans feel the same way. If he's right, and most of Washington thinks so, then even if articles of impeachment are voted out of Hyde's committee, they would die in the full House. And though tension in the Persian Gulf is abating, this week's hearings might still take place under the threat of a real-world exchange of fire there, something that could make the continuing fuss over Bill and Monica seem just a bit petty and exasperating. Among the 81 questions that Hyde sent two weeks ago to the White House was whether Clinton admitted or denied that he had given Monica Lewinsky an Annie Lennox CD. It was the one that opens with the love song Why?

On the face of it, nothing that Starr did last Friday seemed sufficient to change that dynamic. At Hyde's request he sent to the House some new evidence concerning whether Clinton lied when he told lawyers for Paula Jones that he did not attempt to kiss and fondle Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer. But Starr stopped short of making a new referral of wrongdoing, like those in his September report to the House. This time he simply invited the committee to look into Willey's story.

Starr also announced that for the third time he obtained an indictment against former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, this time on 15 felony counts of fraud and perjury. At least at the outset it looked like serial killing of the same victim. For years Starr has been putting the squeeze on Hubbell in the hope of getting him to give up something about either the President or Hillary Clinton, who was Hubbell's law partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., in the 1980s. Hubbell has already served 18 months in prison after pleading guilty four years ago to charges that he cheated his law partners at Rose. No sooner was Hubbell free than Starr indicted him again earlier this year on tax-evasion charges. Two months later those were dismissed by a federal district court judge. Starr has appealed.

This time Starr claims that Hubbell sought to conceal from federal regulators the role he and Hillary Rodham Clinton--whom the indictment does not name, but alludes to as "Rose's 1985-86 billing partner"--played in the complicated real estate deal called Castle Grande. Hubbell's actions, the indictment says, enabled his Rose firm to continue getting lucrative legal work from the Federal Government and helped mask from regulators the collapsing finances of Madison Guaranty, the savings and loan owned by James and Susan McDougal, the Clintons' Whitewater partners. If Hubbell knows something, especially about Hillary Clinton, Starr might yet be vindicated. But as Starr heads to his committee appearance this week, this latest move could also look like bug-eyed prosecutorial sadism. A senior White House aide just shrugged. "Dying stars always flare before they fade away." After the indictments were announced, Hubbell appeared briefly to say, "I do not know of any wrongdoing on behalf of the First Lady and President, and nothing the independent counsel can do to me is going to make me lie about them."

Even if the consensus in Washington is that Clinton will not be impeached, that consensus has been wrong on nearly every matter of consequence all year. And there's still the messy question of how to stop "the process." In an op-ed piece last week in the New York Times, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter suggested that Congress simply set the case aside and leave it for Starr to pursue after Clinton leaves office two years from now. Sources tell TIME that Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, even sent a memo to House Speaker-in-waiting Bob Livingston and other Republican leaders that urged them, as part of a program for G.O.P. renewal, to drop impeachment in favor of a bipartisan resolution of censure.

Hyde still firmly believes that censure is not a constitutional option. In his view, if the House votes down impeachment, that's the end of it. But the G.O.P. is also mindful that its Christian conservative base will not be happy. That's why House Republicans last week looked like Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk--imitating forward movement toward impeachment while in reality backing away. Though Hyde said right after the election that Starr would be his committee's sole major witness, committee aides were suggesting he may call others, including presidential adviser Bruce Lindsey.

Even if that would risk dragging the hearings into the holiday season, it would also add weight to "the process," something that might mollify conservatives. But under this scenario, Democrats would insist on calling more witnesses too, a move that, if blocked by Republicans, would make G.O.P. members look more partisan. Hyde has already invited that criticism by reportedly suggesting last week that he would consider blocking Democrats from questioning Starr on sore points in the conduct of his own investigation, like whether his office illegally denied Lewinsky access to her lawyer.

At the White House, meanwhile, where sex used to be the worst temptation, these days it's triumphalism. Some Clinton aides, not content with saving their boss from death row, want Democrats on the Judiciary Committee to work harder to make sure the whole mess dies this week or next.

On Hyde's committee, where Republicans have a 21-to-16 majority, just three defectors to the Democratic side would be enough to defeat an impeachment before it reached the full House. The chastening '98 election has created a new atmosphere on the committee. California freshman Jim Rogan saw his 15% lead in the autumn polls drop to almost nothing on Nov. 3. That brush with oblivion he blames in part on the fact that his position on the Judiciary Committee required him to second very publicly his party's pro-impeachment line. Two other G.O.P. members who could vote with the Democrats are Mary Bono of California and Lindsey Graham, a conservative South Carolinian who has said from the start he would not impeach the President for merely lying in the Paula Jones deposition. But even wavering Republicans may decide they don't really need to switch sides anyway. Since any articles of impeachment approved by their committee are so likely to die on the House floor, their vote would be largely symbolic.

But if the committee votes out those articles, even ones that are rejected by the full House, it would still be no small burden for Clinton to carry into history. And if that bill lands on the House floor, there's no guarantee it won't bounce out of control, passing there and moving right over to the Senate. "There is a problem with a policy of appeasement," says a senior White House official. "If you let 'em have Poland, pretty soon they may be taking Hungary."

Neither side is entirely sure how to play the whole thing until incoming Speaker Livingston makes his intentions clear. Livingston has been offering lip service both to those who would end it and those who believe the President's behavior is too serious to ignore. But friends are sure he's eager to get the thing wrapped up before he takes command of the next Congress in January. Representative Billy Tauzin, one of Livingston's fellow Louisiana Republicans, says, "He'd like to see the preoccupation with scandal end." Who wouldn't? But not everyone in Washington is ready yet to call it quits.

You can't go on like this? That's what you think.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, James Carney and John F. Dickerson/Washington


Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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