Republicans reject talk of early deal

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The Independent Online
WHITE HOUSE efforts to spare Bill Clinton the ordeal of impeachment hearings suffered an early setback yesterday when senior Republicans rejected Democrat proposals for a deal. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and the chairman of the House judiciary committee, Henry Hyde, also rejected Democrats' calls for a decision within 30 days, saying the committee should have time to complete its investigation first.

The double rebuff came amid pledges from committee members of both parties to take the 1974 Watergate impeachment hearings as a model for further action and strong words from two former presidents, who blamed Mr Clinton for diminishing the office of president. By last night, a decision to open impeachment proceedings seemed almost inevitable.

Yesterday's public statements brought into the open several days of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, which the White House had apparently hoped would clinch a deal to pre-empt impeachment. Officials and lawyers were said to have been exploring a proposal by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, that Mr Clinton might appear in person before the House judiciary committee and submit to a vote of censure, while also agreeing to pay a hefty fine.

Negotiations had hotted up on Tuesday, after the public response to the broadcast of Mr Clinton's grand jury testimony had turned out to be more favourable than expected. The negative Republican response yesterday appeared to take the White House by surprise and brought immediate condemnation from its spokesman, Mike McCurry, who accused Republicans of wanting the Lewinsky affair, with all its explicit sexual detail, to "drag on and on endlessly".

The idea of a judiciary committee appearance by Mr Clinton was not wholly off the agenda, however. While rejecting a deal to avert impeachment, Mr Gingrich allowed for the possibility of an Congressional appearance by the President, acknowledging that he had not had the opportunity to put his case.

The author of the "deal" scenario, Senator Kerry, called a press conference to stress that his proposal was predicated on more than just a Congressional appearance by Mr Clinton. And he confirmed the view of other Clinton-loyalists that any deal had to end speculation about the President's future by lifting the threat of impeachment.

Mr Gingrich, however, said that to reach a conclusion about impeachment before the House committee had completed its examination of the evidence was "simply to put the cart before the horse". It has still to decide the fate of 16 boxes of documents from the inquiry into the Lewinsky affair that were not released earlier this week. The decision on whether to release this material, and if so, how much of it, could be made as early as tomorrow.

On Tuesday, Mr Hyde said that a decision on instituting impeachment hearings could be made in early October - that would be just before Congress breaks for the mid-term elections. Yesterday, however, he and other committee members declined to be bound by such a timetable, saying: "I think the American people want and deserve a full, fair and independent review of the allegations against the President, not a quick peek or passing glance."

Justifying the Democrats' calls for a deadline for the decision on impeachment hearings, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Gephardt, said that it was necessary "for the sake of the country and in the interests of limiting the exposure of our children to wall-to-wall coverage". But Republicans objected that Democrats had also cautioned against rushing to judgement and not considering the evidence against the President carefully enough.

A number of American elder statesmen, meanwhile, weighed into the discussion about the Lewinsky affair. The Former President George Bush told a television interviewer that while the presidency was "bigger than one person", he feared the office had suffered at least temporary damage. Fellow former President Jimmy Carter said he had "deplored and been deeply embarrassed about" Mr Clinton's relationship with Ms Lewinsky. But he also chided the President's opponents with "overemphasis" of the scandal.

Ms Lewinsky may agree to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, so giving substance to criticism that her affair and its aftermath demonstrate the "Oprahfication of America". The show would not comment on a CNN report that Ms Lewinsky would take part. Aside from a photo-shoot for Vanity Fair magazine, she has done her best to stay out of the limelight.