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Washington Journal: Congress Leaders Set Rules On Handling Clinton Probe

Washington, 11 September 1998 (RFE/RL) --Leaders of the House of Representatives moved quickly Thursday to set rules and procedures for handling the findings of an independent prosecutor's investigation of allegations of wrongdoing by President Bill Clinton, allegations that threaten his presidency.

After complaining for months about the slow pace of the investigation, House members were taken by surprise when a nearly 500-page report and 18 boxes of supporting documents, plus a duplicate set of those documents, arrived at the Capitol late Wednesday.

The materials were prepared by Judge Kenneth Starr and his staff. Starr heads the Office of the Independent Counsel. He was appointed to that post by a panel of federal judges. Starr was not expected to deliver the report until next week at the earliest.

Starr spokesman Charles Bakaly told reporters the independent counsel had turned over "substantial and credible information that may constitute grounds for impeachment of the president of the United States."

The arrival of the materials forced late night meetings by senior members of the two dominant political parties in Congress -- the Republicans, who hold the majority in the House and Senate, and Clinton's fellow Democrats.

The two parties are expected to spend today (Friday) arguing about the release of the information. The Republicans want to release as much material as possible as soon as possible to the general public. That includes publication of some of the materials on the worldwide computer linkup known as the Internet.

Congressman Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Thursday he expects the House to pass legislation today that will permit immediate release of some material. Hyde told reporters that Judiciary Committee leaders will review another 2,000 pages over the next few days to determine what additional materials may be released without, in Hyde's words, jeopardizing the reputation of "innocent people."

Democrats are insisting that the report should not be made public until Clinton and his personal attorneys are given a chance to thoroughly review the materials. The White House was not given a copy of the report. Democrats contend that keeping the report from the president is unfair. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), said: "There's a great desire for fairness. There's a great desire to do this in the right way."

Clinton's legal advisers appealed for a three-day delay in release of the documents to give the president the weekend to look over the papers.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) warned members Thursday that whenever they begin deliberations, they must behave themselves and watch their language. Gingrich presides over the House and he is the senior leader of the majority party in the lower chamber. He said:

"The freedom of speech in debate in the House of Representatives should never be denied or abridged. But freedom of speech in debate does not mean license to indulge in personal abuses or ridicule. The right of members of the two houses of Congress to criticize the official acts of the president and other executive officers is beyond question. But this right is subject to proper rules requiring decorum in debate."

The documents handed to Congress capped a four and half year investigation that started with a probe of real estate investments the president made when he was governor of the southern state of Arkansas in the 1980s. The president has said repeatedly that he did nothing wrong when he was governor.

However, eight months ago the investigation turned into an inquiry into charges that he committed perjury and obstructed justice when he denied having a sexual relationship with a former White House assistant in 1995 and 1996. Following months of denials, Clinton finally conceded last month that he had an improper relationship with the woman, whose name is Monica Lewinsky. He also admitted that he might have, in his term, misled people about the nature of his relations with Lewinsky.

The allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice could lead to the start of impeachment proceedings against the president. Those proceedings would begin with a review of the charges by the House Judiciary Committee. If a majority of the 435-member House votes to impeach the president for what are termed high crimes and misdemeanors, the president would stand trial in the 100-member Senate. If a two-thirds Senate majority votes to convict, the president would be driven from office.

Clinton's personal lawyer, David Kendall, says there are no grounds for impeachment. Democratic supporters of the president emphasized repeatedly that Starr's report contained only the counsel's allegations, which, they say, may or may not be true.

Several Republican members of Congress have called for Clinton to resign. The latest, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, asserted Thursday that Clinton's ability to lead has been all but destroyed and his "actions have been corrosive to our national character and debased the office of the presidency."

However, Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-South Dakota), said Senate Democrats accepted the president's apology for his behavior and were ready to move on. Daschle spoke to the press after he and several other senators met Clinton at the White House on Thursday to hear another apology from the president. Clinton has made several public and private apologies over the last few days for his conduct with Lewinsky.