Congress moves to clear Clinton

US elections: Republicans seek quick fix to impeachment row as the battle to be president in the year 2000 begins
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The Independent Online
SENIOR REPUBLICANS, stung by their party's failure to make expected gains in Tuesday's mid-term Congressional elections, indicated yesterday that they wanted to speed the impeachment inquiry into the conduct of President Bill Clinton and hoped to get it over in the shortest possible time, ideally by the end of the year.

To that end, the House of Representatives judiciary committee has sent a letter to the President, asking him to confirm or deny specific points of his testimony in the Monica Lewinsky case, in the hope of hastening the proceedings.

The existence of the letter was disclosed yesterday by the committee chairman, Henry Hyde, when he expressed the hope that, unlike Richard Nixon, the last President subject to impeachment hearings, Mr Clinton would agree to cooperate with the inquiry.

The letter, according to Mr Hyde - a "genteel" move on the committee's part - appeared to be an olive branch after the results of this week's Congressional elections, which showed little appetite among the American public for impeaching the President, or even for proceeding with the inquiry.

While insisting that the election results had made no difference to the constitutional process, Mr Hyde also revealed that the committee was planning to call only two witnesses when impeachment hearings begin in two weeks.

The main witness will be Kenneth Starr, the author of the report that listed 11 possibly impeachable charges against Mr Clinton, including several counts of lying under oath. The second is likely to be an expert on legal testimony who would be able to inform the committee about what constitutes lying under oath and whether there is any distinction in law between giving a sworn deposition in a civil case and testifying before a grand jury in a criminal case.

The Starr report accused Mr Clinton of lying when he denied a sexual relationship with Ms Lewinsky in his deposition for the sexual harassment case brought by Paula Jones last January. It also accused him of lying twice in his sworn testimony to the grand jury in the Lewinsky case on 17 August.

Legal opinion in the US is sharply divided about whether lying in a civil case is as heinous an offence as lying in a criminal case, and whether lying about sexual activity should be considered more forgivable than lying about anything else.

Mr Hyde was clear that the committee wanted to restrict the hearings to the finer points of the law, rather than raking over the salacious details of the President's relationship with Ms Lewinsky.

After the elections, the Republican-majority Congress is confronted with the difficulty of fulfilling its constitutional duty to conduct an impeachment inquiry, while apparently lacking a public mandate.

Once the mid-term results became clear, Mr Hyde insisted: "Our duty has not changed because the constitution has not changed." The hybrid nature of impeachment, part- judicial, part-political - makes it hard for members of Congress to proceed to impeachment without public backing.