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Longing for leaders


WASHINGTON -- It's even worse than it looks. There really is no one in charge on Capitol Hill.

Not Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House speaker. He's saying his job is finished. Not Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, the next speaker. His new job hasn't begun yet. Not Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He's actually trying to sort out the babble of the most polarized, most politicized committee in the House.

As a result, the Congress is careening toward a vote on impeachment -- the most dramatic act the legislative branch can take, short of declaring war -- without any idea of how it wants the yearlong inquiry on President Clinton's moral fitness to be resolved.

Through the fog screams the biggest irony: The growing support for a House impeachment resolution, a solid step in a process designed to remove the president from office, comes at the very moment of a serious leadership vacuum on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Gingrich has the job but won't exercise its power. Mr. Livingston has power but can't exercise it because he doesn't have the job. Things are so bad that a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen.-elect Charles E. Schumer of New York, pleaded to Mr. Livingston: "Step in and take control of this ++ runaway train before we go over a cliff."

This is Washington's interregnum conundrum. In Ottawa, London or Jerusalem, transfers of power are rapid and unforgiving. In Washington, these things take longer.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in November 1932 and didn't take over the White House from Herbert Hoover for four months -- enough time for the economy to worsen and for Adolf Hitler to go from an opposition leader to German chancellor.

Presidential transitions no longer are that leisurely. But the transition at the top of the House is distorting the impeachment process -- to the detriment of the president and Republicans.

The inclination and interests of the next speaker are not ambiguous. Mr. Livingston wants impeachment taken up swiftly and dispatched efficiently. He wants it wrapped up in 1998.

This is what Mr. Livingston isn't doing because he can't: taking charge. Protecting the dignity of the legislative branch.

This is what Mr. Gingrich isn't doing because he won't: Guiding the actions of the Judiciary Committee. Reining in the zealots.

Mr. Gingrich is avoiding the impeachment question the way a once-burned cat avoids a stove top. He won't touch it for hTC anything. "He doesn't have a role," says Frank I. Luntz, the GOP pollster, "and that's very beneficial to the Republican Party."

Indeed, Mr. Gingrich's (swiftly dwindling) allies have reminded him that every time he squares off against Mr. Clinton, he loses. "He knows he has been the lightning rod," says Rep. Cass Ballenger, the North Carolina Republican. "If he stays out of this thing and lets Henry Hyde run it, the Democrats won't have anyone to attack. The minute Newt gets involved it becomes a political dogfight -- even worse than it is already."

But many Republicans believe the House Judiciary Committee is behaving like a runaway jury, with its own obsessions, its own peculiar dynamic, its own view of the political world. These Republicans believe that as isolated as Mr. Gingrich is from the party rank-and-file, Mr. Hyde and the Judiciary Committee are more isolated.

One prominent GOP House member casually refers to the Judiciary Committee deliberations as a "sideshow." That sideshow will end this week.

The curtain will rise on the main act next week when the drama reaches the House floor.

David Shribman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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