Clinton tries to scupper Starr inquiry

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton mustered a counter-attack yesterday against the investigation that may lead to his impeachment. His lawyers are asking the prosecutor Kenneth Starr for advance sight of his report to Congress, so that they can send a response at the same time as it is submitted.

The report into Mr Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and efforts to cover it up, could be released any day.

After the Labor Day holiday signalled the beginning of the political season, the President spent yesterday on the campaign trail in Maryland, and today will visit Florida to campaign for the Democrat candidate for governor. His aides say that his trip to Russia and Ireland distracted from preparations for the report's arrival, and that now is the time to get him out in front of the public.

The Clinton administration says that it should be allowed to see the report in advance, arguing that, otherwise, it will be unable to present its own version of events. "Elemental fairness dictates that we be allowed to see any `report' you send to the House simultaneously with its transmission," the White House lawyer, David Kendall, said in a letter he wrote to Mr Starr on Monday.

The tone of Mr Kendall's letter is to denigrate the very idea of a report, a word that Mr Kendall places in inverted commas throughout. Nothing in the law, he says, "authorises your office to prepare a `report' to the House that purports to summarise and analyse evidence". Mr Kendall says that he wants a week to examine the report.

The White House is said to be considering drawing up its own riposte to set out a different view of the arguments and facts in the Starr investigation. Clinton aides hope to deflect some of the criticism and give his allies on Capitol Hill some ammunition of their own. The White House report might be sent with Mr Starr's document to Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, Mr Kendall suggests, who has been supervising the grand jury's work.

The report, which may come this week, is not being written by Mr Starr. The author is Stephen Bates, a lawyer and writer who has made a name for himself with books and articles on several controversial legal cases. He is said by those who know him to be unideological, middle-of-the-road and low profile. His most important work to date is likely to run to about 300 pages, summarising the evidence drawn out by the grand jury. The Starr office will send the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, a letter in advance, letting him know that the report is on the way.

The scramble to deal with the report, and its legal and political implications, has also begun on Capitol Hill. There are already tussles between Democrats and Republicans over the way in which Congress will handle it. The House Judiciary Committee will handle any impeachment hearings to arise out of the report, but there are few precedents as to how the committee should do it. A meeting today between Mr Gingrich and Richard Gephardt, the leader of the minority Democrats in the House, will try to sort out arrangements and procedures.

Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has asked for special procedures to allow his committee to investigate the allegations. Among other things, he wants the authority to order the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Representatives to arrest witnesses who do not co-operate with his inquiries.

The House Judiciary Committee was also meeting yesterday to examine what the Constitution means when it speaks of "high crimes and misdemeanours" as the test for impeachment.

The report will examine whether Mr Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Ms Lewinsky, encouraged her to lie, and obstructed investigations. But it is unclear whether he broke any laws, or whether breaking the law is a necessary condition of "high crime and misdemeanours".

Impeachment would be decided upon only after a complex procedure. Once Mr Starr has notified Congress of his intention to send a report, the House Rules Committee will draw up a resolution authorising the Judiciary Committee to subpoena witnesses and take depositions.

The Starr report would then be sent to the Judiciary Committee, and might, for a time, be limited to its members. It would determine whether to hold impeachment hearings, which could result in a recommendation of articles of impeachment against the President.

Then the full House would vote on whether to confirm the impeachment, and the President would be tried by the Senate.

President Richard Nixon resigned once it became clear that he would be impeached.

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