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House Judiciary Committee Delays Clinton Tape Release

By Juliet Eilperin
and Peter Baker
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The House Judiciary Committee bogged down in a fierce partisan battle Thursday over how much secret and sexually explicit evidence from the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation to make public, forcing the panel to put off plans to release the videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony for at least another day.

During a closed, day-long meeting, the committee's Republican majority won 11 party-line votes rejecting attempts by Democrats to delay or limit disclosure of grand jury material in deference to Clinton and other key players, according to sources familiar with the session. After seven hours of back-and-forth, the panel finally gave up for the day and agreed to reconvene this morning.

Much of the lengthy dispute centered on how much to edit Lewinsky's testimony to remove graphic descriptions of her Oval Office suite sexual encounters with Clinton, according to sources, with Democrats lobbying unsuccessfully for greater restrictions. So consumed was the committee with that issue that it never even got around to debating conditions for releasing the Clinton videotape.

The breakdown at the full committee's first meeting on impeachment issues since receiving independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report indicated the difficulty the House will have sustaining the bipartisan spirit both parties pledged last week. If this opening session is any harbinger, the next several months may feature partisan trench warfare that could deeply divide Congress as it struggles to determine Clinton's future with midterm elections approaching.

The schism could be exacerbated by the makeup of the starkly ideological 37-member committee charged with reviewing Starr's report, sifting through the voluminous supporting evidence and voting on whether the House should open a formal impeachment inquiry on the charges that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice. More so than other House panels, Judiciary is stocked with liberal Democrats, conservative Repub-licans and few moderates to bridge the gap.

"There's no bipartisanship," Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a senior Judiciary Democrat, complained during a break in Thursday's meeting. "They're just deciding what they want to do and doing it. We're not into fact-finding, setting down procedures, deciding what is an impeachable offense. What they're mostly trying to do is weaken the president's standing."

The mood was further soured by the furor over the revelation of a 30-year-old extramarital affair by the committee's chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill. The House Republican leadership Thursday asked for an FBI investigation into whether the White House spread the story, which the White House vigorously denied.

Hyde himself, though, tried to maintain a positive tone in describing the tense committee meeting after it ended. While "passionate at times," he said, "it was a productive debate. It's not a frivolous debate. We are accomplishing a lot."

Even as he and his Republican colleagues were pushing to show the public the videotape of Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, Hyde separately moved to obtain a copy of the videotape of the president's Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones civil case in which he denied having an affair with Lewinsky.

Hyde sent a letter earlier this week to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who oversaw the deposition and later dismissed the lawsuit, seeking a copy of the tape so the committee could evaluate Clinton's original answers itself to determine whether he committed perjury. Wright, who has held twin tapes of the five-hour session under lock and key in Little Rock, Ark., without even allowing the parties to have them, informed lawyers in the case during a telephone conference call Thursday that she will agree to Hyde's request.

If the committee ultimately releases the grand jury tape, as it still appears likely to do, the precedent suggests it could then make public the deposition tape as well. That would set up the prospect of television networks running long excerpts contrasting Clinton's January answers under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky with his attempts seven months later to defend those statements as "legally accurate," if deliberately misleading.

In January, for instance, Clinton said he never had "sexual relations" or a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky and could not recall specifically being alone with her. In August, he admitted having an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with the former intern including encounters where they were alone, but said he did not consider oral sex to be "sexual relations."

As it has regarding the proposed release of the grand jury tape, the White House Thursday responded mildly to the possible release of the Jones deposition tape as well.

"The decision would be in the hands of the House of Representatives and the ultimate test of fairness will be in the hands of the American people," said White House spokesman James E. Kennedy.