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The House Judiciary Committee Profile

November 17, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now a look at the membership and tenor of the House Judiciary Committee that will open hearings Thursday on the impeachment of President Clinton. Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Until today, the great majority of Americans had seen but not heard Monica Lewinsky. That began to change this morning when the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering the possible impeachment of the President, released to the media 22 hours of Lewinsky’s conversations recorded by Linda Tripp. The committee edited the tapes to delete expletives and to protect some individuals’ privacy. The tapes contain no new information. Transcripts of the conversations were released several weeks ago. However for the first time the public can hear Lewinsky’s voice add texture to her words. For example, on one recorded excerpt, a frustrated-sounding Lewinsky talks of wanting to go back to work inside the White House after having been moved to a job at the Pentagon several months earlier.

MONICA LEWINSKY: And I – I said to Betty, I said, “You know,” because she said something or another. Well, I know he, you know he wanted you, but da, da, da, and I said, “No. You know what?” I said, If he had really wanted me back, all it would have taken was him to bring Rahm, Ann Lewis — you know — Sid Blumenthal, and Erskine into his office and sit down with them for three minutes and say, this girl got – [deleted] – over. She went – you know, she went away when she was told to go away. I told her she could come back. She wants to work doing either communications or strategy. Figure it out and come back to me in two weeks.

LINDA TRIPP: What did Betty say?

MONICA LEWINSKY: She just didn’t say anything.

LINDA TRIPP: I think – I think you should remember that even if that crossed his mind, if he did that, he might as well have said to them, “I had an affair with this girl and” -

MONICA LEWINSKY: So what? Then that’s what he should have done.

LINDA TRIPP: Yeah, but, Monica, I mean, he is never going to be that up front. I don’t know that Bruce Lindsey knows about you really.

MONICA LEWINSKY: I don’t think so.

LINDA TRIPP: I think he keeps -

MONICA LEWINSKY: Well, if he did, he’s probably the one who put the quash on me then. I think people call me the Stalker. I think that’s what they say. Oh, my God, that gets me so mad. I hate that.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Thursday, it will be Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s turn to speak extensively for the first time about the impeachment report he sent to Congress in September. The House Judiciary Committee has cleared two hours for Starr to make an opening statement. He then will face questions from the 37-member committee, which previous sessions have shown includes a diverse cast of characters.

REP. HENRY HYDE: I guess you have to list and litanize and catalogue every possible circumstance to have standards for due process. It’s like pornography. You know it when you see it.

REP BARNEY FRANK: I wasn’t sure I knew pornography when I saw until I got a chance to read the report. Now I feel a little bit more informed on that.

REP. HENRY HYDE: How intensely do you read it?

REP. BARNEY FRANK: I skim it.

REP. HENRY HYDE: I thought so.

KWAME HOLMAN: At center stage is Republican chairman Henry Hyde who despite obvious political differences with the committee’s Democrats has earned as much respect from them as he has from Republicans. Often leading the praise for the chairman is the committee’s ranking Democrat John Conyers, the only current member of the House who served on the 1974 Watergate Impeachment panel.

REP. JOHN CONYERS: By alleging abuses of power by the President, the independent counsel has simply repackaged his basic allegation of lying about sex in a quite transparent effort to conjure the ghost of Watergate.

KWAME HOLMAN: But strong opinions and personalities are not limited to the Judiciary Committee’s two top members.

REP. RICK BOUCHER: All of the members have strong opinions. All of them are unreluctant to state those opinions on a frequent basis. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard some people say that our committee is best characterized by the phrase, “no unexpressed opinion.”

KWAME HOLMAN: For instance, there’s Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who has warned of a return to an “imperial presidency” if President Clinton isn’t made to pay for his actions. And Georgia’s Bob Barr, a former federal prosecutor who first called for the President’s impeachment in January.

REP. BOB BARR: We are witnessing nothing less than the symptoms of a cancer on the American presidency. If we fail to remove it, it will expand to destroy the principles that matter most to all of us.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the Democratic side Maxine Waters of California has reflected the strong support for President Clinton among African-Americans. And Barney Frank of Massachusetts has tried to portray Independent Counsel Ken Starr as the real villain in this saga.

REP. BARNEY FRANK: The gentleman suggested this delegates our fact finding to Mr. Starr. Frankly, there are some of us here who would be very reluctant to delegate anything to Mr. Starr, up to and including mailing a letter.

KWAME HOLMAN: Among the remaining members, the great majority probably would say they wouldn’t be recognized outside of their own home districts. The junior members sit down front on the ends and are the last to have their say.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The good news is me and Mary Bono stand between lunch so we’ll try to get through this thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina will begin his third term in January. Mary Bono enters her first full term.

REP. MARY BONO: The time has come for the American people to get the facts.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bono won a special election last spring to fill the term of her husband Sonny, who died in January. She says being the only woman on the Republican side has made adapting to the Judiciary committee and its historic assignment all the more difficult.

REP. MARY BONO: I really don’t have that many people to sort of jump – you know – bounce my thoughts off of as far as executive session has gone, other than perhaps a couple of the women lawyers on the staff. But other than that, I’m still trying to find out who and what I am, and I think that that’s also an important step in a member’s life, a politician’s life, or anybody’s new life, whatever it might be, and that is to sit back and watch and learn and to see what the job is and go about it slowly.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite her inexperience, Bono will get the same amount of time to question Kenneth Starr on Thursday as will other members on the committee. And her vote will carry as much weight as the chairman’s. Bono also stands out as one of only three non-lawyers on the Judiciary Committee.

REP. MARY BONO: Many things need to be complicated, and I understand that. But at the same time I think that they overanalyze a lot. They take a sentence, obviously something is meant that anybody would agree with, and they will, you know, nit-pick it apart and try to change it, you know, do the lawyerly type things that lawyers love to do, and I think it can be very frustrating.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mary Bono, I think, reflects very well, the average American here. She is very smart. She is a sophisticated lady, so she understands human failings, and she’s not going off the deep end because the President may have been involved in an inappropriate relationship. She’s looking for more. She’s looking for something that she thinks is out of bounds, that’s a crime, sort of the standard I’m trying to set.

KWAME HOLMAN: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham is a lawyer — having worked as a military prosecutor as well as a defense attorney. He gained some notoriety in October by taking what many considered to be a patient, nonpartisan approach to the impeachment process.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: The truth is I have no clue what I am going to do yet. I can tell you that and look you in the eye and honestly mean it. I don’t know if censure is appropriate, we should just drop it, or we should throw him out of office. Nobody knows yet, in my opinion, who really has got an open mind about this thing.

KWAME HOLMAN: We spoke to Lindsey Graham. Were you surprised in any way about him?

REP. TOM BARRETT: Oh, I think many of us were surprised, because he’s been viewed as someone who is a very conservative member.

KWAME HOLMAN: Soon after the impeachment proceedings began, Tom Barrett, a Democrat from Wisconsin, teamed up with Lindsey Graham and several other committee members from both parties to hold “informal” discussions.

REP. TOM BARRETT: Well, there’s a number that have been involved: Asa Hutchinson, Lindsay Graham, Ed Pease on the Republican side; Bill Delahunt, Howard Berman, myself on the Democratic side. And the goal is to try to build dialogue even if we’re coming to this issue from diametrically opposed positions or expectations, that in order for this have credibility, there has to be some bipartisanship.

KWAME HOLMAN: Barrett says he hasn’t been on the committee long enough however to experience any bipartisanship.

REP. TOM BARRETT: I joined the committee, though, a half hour after the Starr Report was released, so I only know the tumultuous side of the committee. And clearly it’s been a baptism, not just by fire, but by raging forest fire, because it’s been so hot. But part of my thinking, you’re at the prize fight, you might as well sit in the front row and — and be part of it. This is history, however it turns out.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mary Bono says she wouldn’t have chosen to be in the front row.

KWAME HOLMAN: Are you glad you’re involved in this?

REP. MARY BONO: No. There are times when I have said boy, I wish I were on the Education Committee right now, or I were on a different committee, but I have never, ever regretted the fact that I’m on this committee, and there are times when I, you know, feel, boy, how did I end up here right now, and I’m quickly reminded by my constituents that they sent me there, and they’re happy that I’m there, and they have faith in my ability to be there.

KWAME HOLMAN: Although Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher has been “there” since 1983, he admits he’s spent most of his time on some of the Judiciary committee’s more “mundane” issues.

REP. RICK BOUCHER: Patents, copyrights, trademarks, not exactly what you read about every day in terms of what the House Judiciary Committee does.

KWAME HOLMAN: Boucher says he purposely has stayed away from the committee’s more volatile debates.

REP. RICK BOUCHER: And those are the debates on things like abortion, flag burning, school prayer, the rights of people with alternative lifestyles. I don’t get involved very much in these debates. Frankly, I’m not attracted to those debates. I am much more interested in what I think is more substantive work, and that is intellectual property, antitrust, bankruptcy, and areas such as that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yet when the Democrats moved — though unsuccessfully – to limit the scope and length of the impeachment hearings, it was Rick Boucher who took on the high-profile responsibility of bringing his party’s resolution to the House floor. Now — with the impeachment hearings about to begin –Boucher has definite opinions on the standards that apply in President Clinton’s case.

REP. RICK BOUCHER: Impeachment is not a punishment for an individual. Impeachment was never designed to be a way for the country to disapprove of the conduct by removing the person from office viewed as a punishment. Impeachment was always something designed to advance the public interest, and to say that if the president’s conduct is such that it strikes at the very fundamental core of our constitutional system of government, if his conduct is such that it incapacitates him from exercising the duties of his office, then impeachment is warranted. But there has to be that element of substantiality tied to the personal misconduct. The misconduct alone is not sufficient for impeachment. The way to deal with the misconduct, if it rises to criminal proportions, is for the president to stand the test of the criminal system after he leaves office, and the Constitution very clearly provides for that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lindsey Graham and Tom Barrett have established their own criteria as well.

REP. LINDSEY GRAHAM: If you lie to a grand jury, I don’t care who you are, you’re subject to going to jail. If you start lying under oath and getting other people to lie for you under oath, then you’re in serious trouble if you’re in a lawsuit situation because the law has to be respected. If you’re hiding evidence, trying to coach witnesses, you would be in trouble. That’s what I’m looking at, because if you look at those things, the sex nature of this gets put in its box. People don’t go to jail in America because they have illicit relationships. That’s good. That shouldn’t be the standard for impeachment. If that’s all we wind up with, I’m going to be the first person to say let’s end this thing, and you deal with the president on your own terms politically.

REP. TOM BARRETT: On the other side, I think for many Democrats, including myself — and I think for the country as a whole — that there are also huge questions about the relationship between Ken Starr, Linda Tripp and the Paula Jones attorneys, that there’s this triangle there that exists. And when you’re talking about something as serious as setting aside the results of the national election, I think that that relationship or those relationships have to be explored and brought to life.

KWAME HOLMAN: And even though national polls show most Americans want the impeachment issue simply to go away, Mary Bono says the Judiciary Committee will do its job with integrity.

REP. MARY BONO: Although we’re in this period of tremendous adversity right now, I think that in the end the American people will know yes, we’ve been in the mud now, we’re wrestling with some very difficult issues, and the country is divided – some of the country is divided on it, but I think in the end they will be proud of the work that Congress has done. I honestly believe that.

JIM LEHRER: The NewsHour will air extended excerpts from Starr’s testimony on Thursday. We will also be providing live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings on many public television stations, plus a one-hour summary program each night. Check your local TV listing for the times in your area.