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Starr Witness

November 5, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now reaction from four members of the Judiciary Committee: two Republicans, Bill McCollum of Florida, and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas; and two Democrats, Marty Meehan of Massachusetts and Thomas Barrett of Wisconsin. Congressman Hutchinson, do you agree with the approach and the plan that Congressman Hyde outlined today?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON, (R) Arkansas: Well, I think he’s reflecting the desire of the American people to bring it to a conclusion. I had outlined previously a different hearing concept to the chairman, with a broader list of witnesses, so that we could get a flavor for some of their personal testimony, on the obstruction of justice issues. But he’s the captain of the team, and I think you could approach this a number of different ways. And so I support him, what he’s doing, although I would have – and I think he’s leaving some flexibility for calling additional witnesses, if necessary.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Barrett, what do you think of the Hyde approach?

REP. THOMAS BARRETT, (D) Wisconsin: Well, I think it’s an interesting approach and obviously reflects the newfound desire to get this issue behind us, which is I think what the American people wanted all along. Where I would take issue with the chairman is that if we don’t have the constitutional imperative to consider a sanction other than impeachment, I don’t know that the leadership, the Republican leadership in the House, or the Senate would have it. So I don’t favor what I would call sort of a passing the buck approach. I think that we are at the pay level where we can make this decision at the committee level. And I hope that we do consider alternatives other than impeachment. I was disappointed to hear him say that he will not – at least I thought I heard him say that he did not want to consider a sanction, other than impeachment.

JIM LEHRER: But the basic approach of having only Kenneth Starr appear and admit and deny a letter to the president you endorse?

REP. THOMAS BARRETT: Well, my personal feeling – and I’m speaking only for myself here – is that if we’re moving toward an impeachment vote. I still think it’s necessary to hear from Linda Tripp. I don’t see how he can move forward without hearing from her. I do think that it’s imperative we hear from Kenneth Starr. So I am encouraged that he’s going to be calling Ken Starr before the committee.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman McCollum, what do you think of the Hyde approach?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM, (R) Florida: Well, I think it’s a good approach in the broad sense that we determined early on several weeks ago that we wanted to get this done as soon as possible, and preferably before Christmas. If we could get the stipulations and the agreements and the Democrats can agree generally that this broad context, as I understand. That’s the effort today to do. Then I think it will work. Now, there may be some other witnesses that need to be called. And that entirely could take place. As a matter of fact, my understanding is Chairman Hyde is open to whatever the Democrats want in the way of witnesses. If they demand Linda Tripp or some other witness, then I suspect that witness will be called. And it may be that when we get into this, and we get back and follow the lead in the process, there will be a couple of more. But the idea here is to stipulate to find as many of the facts as we can from what already exists out there that’s known, the sworn testimony, and much of it is there for us, and not get engaged in something that bogs us down interminably, which I don’t think the public wants and I know I don’t want.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that concept, Congressman Meehan?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN, (D) Massachusetts: Well, I’m a little concerned that we’re talking about impeachment of a president. In fact, Chairman Hyde said that there will be a vote on articles of impeachment. And it appears to me that most Republicans on the committee are prepared to vote in favor of articles of impeachment. Now, if that’s the case, to do that without even calling one material witness, that is someone who actually said something, saw something, or did something, I think would be unconscionable. So it depends on which way we are going to go with this. I don’t think the American people want a process that’s quicker but not fairer, quicker but not bipartisan. So it depends upon what the issue is. I want to see this over with sooner rather than later. I’m also concerned to hear Chairman Hyde say that it’s no constitutional basis for the House to consider a lesser sanction as some kind of admonishment, but somehow it’s available to the Senate. It’s nonsense. There isn’t necessarily any more constitutional basis to the Senate to consider a lesser admonishment than there is for the House. There seems to be a preconceived notion that we’ll send this to the Senate and let them worry about lesser admonishment, and that’s of concern to me.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to Congressman Hutchinson on that specific question about Congressman Hyde’s point that, well, the House couldn’t make a deal on this, so they’d have to — the Senate would have to do it. Do you agree with him on that?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I think any kind of a deal would have to be questionable in terms of the Constitution. Certainly the House does not have the authority to punish, to sanction outside of the ordinary impeachment process. Now, does the Senate? The Constitution says that if a president is found guilty, then the sanction could be up to and including removal from office. So I think there is flexibility on the punishment side, and punishment is not the right word for it but the consequence side on the Senate. So I think there is some serious constitutional questions in all of this talk about a deal. And that’s why the hearing coming up Monday, where we listen to the constitutional scholars, should be very instructive and we should be very careful about going outside of the framework of the Constitution.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Barrett, on Kenneth Starr, do you and other Democrats plan to question him about his approach and methods that he used in the investigation?

REP. THOMAS BARRETT: Well, I certainly have some questions – specifically, the relationship between his office, Paula Jones’ attorneys, and Linda Tripp — it’s my understanding that Linda Tripp – after she was wired at the behest of the independent prosecutor’s office – spoke to Paula Jones’ attorneys, I have questions about the propriety of that, about his representations to Janet Reno. So, yes, I think that it’s safe to say that many of us will have questions. But let me just say when you talk about a deal, I’m not comfortable with the phrase “deal” either.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. That was my word; that was not Congressman Hyde’s word. That was my word.

REP. THOMAS BARRETT: Okay. But I think we should be doing what’s right for the country. And I don’t feel comfortable saying this should be a deal. I don’t think we should have a plea bargain. I don’t think we should be doing any of that sort. I think what we should do is we, the committee, should make a recommendation that I think that the House of Representatives and the Senate can accept.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you think the committee, not make a deal with the White House or the president but could arrive at a decision suggesting some kind of censure or something short of an impeachment?

REP. THOMAS BARRETT: Right. If the will of the American people is to resolve this issue quickly, which I think it is, for us to forward articles of impeachment to the House, have the House forward articles of impeachment, or vote on the articles of impeachment into the Senate drags this out, that’s not what the American people want. I think that we on the committee have enough ability to show the leadership to come up with a sanction that the American people find acceptable. And I hope that we do that.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Congressman McCollum, you disagree with that?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: Well, I do disagree in the sense that I think we have to determine the most important and the fundamental facts in this case, and if they lead to the trail and conclusion, and that’s an if still, that the president committed felony crimes, such as perjury or witness tampering, or obstruction of justice, then it seems to me that we have no choice at that point as a committee but to recommend articles of impeachment to the full House and the House in turn to the Senate where the whole thing gets resolved. That’s our constitutional duty. That’s the constitutional process. Now we may debate whether or not the crimes of perjury or obstruction of justice or whatever are high crimes and misdemeanors, which I’m sure there will be disagreement about, if, indeed, we get to that point, but if we do conclude, the majority of us, that indeed they are high crimes and misdemeanors, and the facts support them, then it seems an open and shut case to me. To do otherwise we would derelict in our duty. And it would be something that, in my judgment, of course, it would undermine the court system of this country to let it go by and undermine the fact that the President of the United States is the highest law enforcement officer of the country. I just think we’ve got a lot of very serious precedent-thinking to do as we proceed, and censure is just not part of the House’s role in this.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Congressman McCollum, on the Starr question, quickly, some people have suggested that Kenneth Starr will be on trial at this hearing as much as the president will. Do you agree with that?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: Well, I guess in certain ways the Democrats would like to make him that. The president certainly would. But to be honest with you, that’s not going to be the issue. The issue is going to always remain fundamentally: Did the president of the United States commit felony crimes that rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors that are impeachable? That’s going to be the question. And I don’t think Ken Starr should be the issue. I think there are questions that a court is rightfully addressing right now about some of the leaks that may have come out. But that should be done in that context, because you have got to remember Janet Reno or the president could always remove him if he’s acted improperly. And there’s a process for that, not through our committee.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Congressman Meehan? Do you plan to ask Kenneth Starr some tough questions?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN: First of all, I’m concerned that we have a 445-page document with no new information. All of it had been leaked in advance. I’m concerned about the unilateral conversations, ex- parte conversations between the independent counsel’s office and Paula Jones’ attorneys. We need to know what the basis was to expand jurisdiction and whether or not the independent counsel may have misrepresented the truth to the attorney general. But let me get to the point that’s being made by Congressman McCollum. Here he is saying, well, look it, this may be an open and shut case, so we may be voting for impeachment because it’s perjury, without calling a material witness, that’s unconscionable. In addition to that, I heard the expression, well, you know, we – the president’s the chief law enforcement officer of the country. The first question that Chairman Hyde asked in his so-called letter, that really it’s like an interrogatory, what it really is, is -

JIM LEHRER: You’ve seen the letter?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN: Yes. I’ve seen a section. I haven’t been able to go through the whole thing, but the first question is: Is it true or false that you are the chief law enforcement officer of the United States? It’s a political document. So before we go running around, saying, well, we can stipulate the facts, Democrats didn’t work in a bipartisan way to come up with these questions. These are political questions that have been posed. The first question: Are you the chief law enforcement officer, yes, or no, true or false?

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t think the president should answer these questions?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN: I haven’t gone through all of them. I think that’s up to the president’s attorneys. My point is that it seems to Republicans on the committee a rushing to vote for impeachment quicker. That doesn’t make the process fairer. It doesn’t make it bipartisan, and it doesn’t – the railroading of the president in three weeks, rather than six months, doesn’t necessarily make it a fairer process.

JIM LEHRER: Is railroading going on here, Congressman Hutchinson? (network difficulty) Congressman Hutchinson, can you hear me? No. I don’t think Congressman Hutchinson can hear me.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I can hear you.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman McCollum, yes.

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: Well, there’s no railroading going on here. If the Democrats want to present witnesses, want us to have them, if the president wants that, then I think we’ll have witnesses; they’ll go on longer. But the objective here is to try to find ways to stipulate. And I heard that first one that was just mentioned by Mr. Meehan. Frankly, that’s what a trial lawyer would do, submitting a set of interrogatories to somebody else in any case. It is not designed to be political or partisan, but if, indeed, we can’t get agreements, then I think we will probably have to have witnesses, and that’s not going to be all that bad to do, but it will extend and protract this longer than most of us would like.

JIM LEHRER: Who drew up the questions, Congressman McCollum?

REP. BILL McCOLLUM: I believe those were drawn up by Mr. Shippers and Mr. Hyde, and they decided what to send out. I think that Congressman Conyers was consulted, but I have no personal knowledge of that.

JIM LEHRER: He’s the Democratic – leading Democrat on the committee. Were you consulted, Congressman Barrett? Do you know anything about the question?

REP. THOMAS BARRETT: I was not. One of my concerns about this process is I don’t think it’s been approached as a bipartisan process. Most of the information that I received, for example, the release of the videotape, came to the media and all that was supposed to be confidential, of course. But I think Congressman Meehan’s point was well taken too. I watched a review of an MSNBC documentary that took place in January, and they replayed it about two weeks ago, and all the information that they had in January was virtually identical to the information that came out in September, so the entire case was laid out to the press on an obviously secretive basis back in January, and that raises questions about the prosecutor’s office.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Hutchinson, what you’ve missed and what I was trying to ask you was Congressman Meehan had made the point that these interrogatories that have been sent to President Clinton by Congressman Hyde are — is basically a political document, not a cooperative, bipartisan approach. How do you feel – he used the word “railroading,” that speed is not necessarily a good thing if you’re not – if you’re involved in a railroading process.

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, I don’t think that that’s the intent of the interrogatories. I think it’s important that if the Democrats have some additional questions that they would like to submit, that they have an opportunity to do that. So I think that we have to make sure that all sides are represented in the hearing. In regard to the witnesses, I think that there are some days that are flexible here, we’ve got a desire to get this concluded, but if there’s material witnesses that the Democrats want, or that we, I believe, is important, there’s some flexibility to call those witnesses. So I think that the commitment is, is to bring this matter to a conclusion, and we need everyone’s cooperation to do that. I think that there’s a spirit on the committee that we can work in a bipartisan fashion; we need to talk to each other; and the Democrats need to be able to submit their own interrogatories, but I think the interrogatories submitted were fair.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, we have to leave it there. Thank you very much.-