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Washington Journal: Impeachment Process Developments Please White House

Washington, 6 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton says he will make no public comment on the matter, but the White House says the latest development in the presidential impeachment controversy is good news.

The chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) told reporters on Thursday that his committee will take testimony from just one witness. And, he said the committee will ask the president to formally "admit or deny" facts about Clinton's personal conduct with a former White House assistant named Monica Lewinsky.

White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart called Hyde's announcement a positive development.

The House has the sole constitutional power to impeach the president -- and a number of other government officials. Impeachment amounts to the bringing of charges of wrongdoing against an official. The process starts in the Judiciary Committee, which weighs evidence and then makes a recommendation to the full 435-member House.

Hyde's committee must decide whether Clinton committed perjury in trying to conceal and cover up his sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

If the full House were to approve by simple majority articles of impeachment, Clinton would be tried in the U.S. Senate. A two-thirds majority of the 100 senators is required for conviction. Conviction brings automatic removal from office with no right of appeal.

Hyde's outline of the Judiciary Committee's plans for the impeachment investigation indicates that the congressional hearings will be brief and probably subdued in tone. Hyde would not say so publicly, but commentators all over Washington were attributing Thursday's developments to the Republican Party's less-than-spectacular showing in Tuesday's congressional elections.

The U.S. Congress is dominated by two parties -- the Republicans, and the Democrats, the party of the president. The House voted last month to investigate whether to undertake impeachment proceedings when the Republican majority was 228-206. In the Senate, the Republican lead on election eve was 55-45.

Republicans anticipated adding anywhere from 8 to 20 seats in the House and 3 to 5 seats in the Senate. However, the Republicans ended up losing five House seats to the Democrats. There was no change in the Senate. When the new congress convenes in January, the Republican majority will only be 223-211 (there is one independent member).

In a written statement Wednesday, Hyde said the election results would not affect his plans for the inquiry. However, Republicans and Democrats alike said the Republicans' House losses sent a message that voters wanted the inquiry wrapped up quickly.

On Thursday, Hyde told reporters he was aware of public disenchantment with the impeachment issue. "No one knows more than I do that the public wants us to end this matter as soon as possible. I want to end this matter as soon as possible. Let me assure you no one on the committee enjoys this task. Conducting an inquiry of this nature is solemn, sober, serious business. There is nothing enjoyable about it," he said.

Hyde said the committee will meet with its single witness in two weeks. The witness will be Judge Kenneth Starr, the independent government prosecutor whose investigation of Clinton led to the impeachment probe in the House.

Hyde also said he is sending the president a letter asking him "to admit or deny certain facts that appear to be established by the record," put together by Starr. Hyde said that, while the president is "free to dispute whatever he wants," his agreement to those facts would "allow us to narrow the issues and bring this matter to a close more quickly."

Before Hyde's press conference Thursday, Clinton told reporters that he wants the hearings, "to be constitutional, fair and expeditious." He said election results supported his view. Voters, he said, are "tired of seeing Washington focused on politics and personalities." Clinton added that he will have nothing more to say on the subject until "the appropriate time, in the appropriate way."