WASHINGTON -- House Republicans began searching yesterday for a way out of the impeachment process against President Clinton, even as the most conservative GOP members of the Judiciary Committee sounded as uncompromising as ever.
Republican losses in last week's election and the resulting ouster of House Speaker Newt Gingrich have drastically altered the political landscape, leaving the Judiciary Committee stuck with a mission that some Republican members no longer want to undertake.
"There are clearly guys on this committee and in this [Republican] conference who prefer another option to impeachment," said Rep. Chris Cannon, a Utah Republican who is a freshman member of the Judiciary Committee.
"The election results have clearly affected some people in wanting [a negotiated way out] more and the president wanting it less."
Clinton may privately believe the election has so strengthened his hand that he no longer needs to accept any penalty for his alleged transgressions with Monica Lewinsky.
But But House Democrats and White House officials are signaling that they would be receptive to a negotiated resolution involving some sort of reprimand.
"Censure is available" as an option, said Democratic Rep. William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts, who discussed possible compromises in an informal gathering Sunday night with two Republican members of the Justice Committee, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"I believe that there are ways to deal with this issue short of a vote on articles of impeachment."
At a prelude yesterday to the formal opening of impeachment process next week, several leading Republican members indicated, however, that they had no intention of backing down -- and were eager to advance the process.
Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a conservative Republican who called for Clinton's impeachment months ago, caused a ripple in the committee room by distributing a draft of an article of impeachment against Clinton based on the first article of impeachment approved by the committee in 1974 against President Nixon.
"This choice is ours, and sooner or later, we're going to have to make it," Barr said, "or else families, teachers and prosecutors will have to pay the price as they cope with generations of liars and perjurers."
Barr's statement came during a nine-hour session by the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution in which legal scholars discussed the history of impeachment.
At one point, Rep. Charles T. Canady of Florida, chairman of the subcommittee, argued that censure, reprimand and lesser penalties are not options provided by the Constitution.
"If the president is guilty of the offenses charged against him, he must be called to account under the Constitution for the commission of high crimes and misdemeanors," Canady said. The one penalty for presidents cited by the Constitution is impeachment, he said.
Democratic members of the committee dismissed the notion that the president's offenses rose to the level of impeachment.
But the hard-line talk from Republicans -- even in the face of last week's election -- is worrisome to the White House because of the current vacuum in the GOP leadership.
The Republican faction intent on impeaching Clinton could push forward without any brakes or guidance from GOP leaders, causing the inquiry to "take on a life of its own," one White House official feared. "Before you know it, we're confronting a vote on impeachment."
The Clinton aide cited yesterday's subcommittee hearing as an example. "Certain members are setting a rhetorical stage for arguing the president committed impeachable offenses," the source said.
A spokeswoman for Henry J. Hyde, Judiciary Committee's chairman, laid out yesterday a tentative schedule for the process. It calls for a committee vote on articles of impeachment by the the middle of next month, after a week of deliberation and next week's appearance by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
In his September report to Congress, Starr charged that Clinton committed perjury and obstructed justice in coaxing others to help conceal his relationship with Lewinsky from investigators.
The White House has not yet responded to a letter sent by Hyde last week asking the president to respond in writing to 81 questions related to the Lewinsky matter.
Clinton's lawyers are working on the responses "expeditiously" and hope to have them completed by early next week.
The results of last week's election, in which Republicans lost five House seats when they had been expecting to gain a dozen or more, was viewed as a sign of voter weariness over GOP efforts to punish Clinton.
According to this interpretation, the electorate would prefer Congress to concentrate on issues of more direct concern to voters.
The emergence of Louisiana Rep. Bob Livingston as Gingrich's likely successor is viewed as a reflection of the moderating influence that is now expected to prevail at the top of the House GOP leadership.
But it was uncertain yesterday whether Livingston -- who is not scheduled to be formally nominated to the speaker's post until next week -- would be willing or able to direct the outcome of the Judiciary Committee's work.
Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican, and several other representatives said they thought Livingston would push the committee to conclude quickly.
"He wants to get off on a bipartisan note and this could really throw him off stride," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore-area Democrat.
Pub Date: 11/10/98