WASHINGTON--The real arbiters of President Clinton's future may not be Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, the various pundits and busybodies, or even the American public. The real power in the Capitol lies with the Republican leadership in Congress. And Newt Gingrich, the speaker, and other congressional officials could be strongly influenced by the wild cards dealt by their own GOP backbench.
In this case, the instigators are a group of obstreperous right-wingers led by Georgia Congressman and former U.S. attorney Bob Barr. Long before last week's scandal broke, Barr had been pushing a resolution calling for broad inquiry into the possible impeachment of the president. His grounds: obstruction of justice, perjury, and ''improper moral behavior.''
White House spokesman Mike McCurry dismissed the congressman's efforts last fall: ''We've seen this from Barr before. Every time things get a little quiet on the inquiry front, he pops off about impeachment.'' But by last week, Barr had plenty of fuel to add to his fire. ''If proven to be true,'' Barr said Wednesday, ''today's allegations are reprehensible and beyond the pale of appropriate behavior for a sitting president and are certainly grounds for impeachment.''
A onetime CIA analyst, Barr has become the most aggressive member of what's been dubbed the ''Mean Caucus.'' (Others in this group of 19 congressmembers include New Jersey conservative Chris Smith, along with Dana Rohrbacher of California and Helen Chenoweth, the militia supporter from Idaho. All have signed on to Barr's bill.) He is best known here as a champion of the gun lobby. But Barr is also sponsor of the Defense of Marriage act, aimed at denying legal status to gay marriages. ''The flames of hedonism, the flames of narcissism, the flames of self-centered morality are licking at the very foundations of our society, the family unit,'' he's said on this topic. Barr himself, however, has made news with two divorces and a hotly contested child custody fight. It has also been reported that he was photographed licking whipped cream off the breasts of ''two buxom young women.''
Barr's resolution was initially an embarrassment to House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde--a circumspect independent conservative who, before the latest scandal broke, tactfully called Barr's impeachment inquiry ''a bit of a stretch.'' But the first gateway through which Barr's resolution would need to pass is Gerald Solomon's House Rules Committee. Last week, the upstate Republican said that if the sexual accusations are shown to be credible, he will go ahead with an ''inquiry of impeachment'' resolution.
If Barr's bill gets through the full Rules committee and makes it to the House floor for a vote, it could become an out-of-control vehicle for the Clinton-haters in Congress and a lobbying tool to pressure Hyde's Judiciary Committee into holding impeachment hearings.
A more likely scenario, according to Republican sources on the Hill, is that Starr, avoiding any attempt to prosecute the president, will relay a factual report of his activities to the House Judiciary Committee. Hyde could then hold hearings on the report and, after that, draw up articles for impeachment. These would then go to the House floor for a vote, and, if passed, to the Senate for a trial.
Impeachment is a tricky political step for the Republicans. For one thing, the leadership has gotten pretty much what it wants from Clinton, and with the president now further weakened and major GOP issues coming up, they have little reason to disturb a relationship that could yield good results. To precipitously get rid of Clinton would be to disrupt the steady progress toward party goals, and give Al Gore a jump in his campaign for the next election. And whatever happens, Republicans can make bigger gains if they publicly hew to a bipartisan stance--which is what they did all last week--leaving the divided Democrats to fall away from supporting their own president.
Additional reporting: Gaelle Drevet, Kelly Clendenin
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