If Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr sends Congress a report that launches impeachment hearings against President Clinton, look for one junior member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Barr, to muscle his way onto center stage.
The Georgia Republican, after all, began building his case against Clinton nearly a year ago. By last fall, months before most Americans had heard of Monica Lewinsky, Barr had persuaded 18 colleagues to join him in an impeachment inquiry resolution.And in the weeks since Clinton's relationship with the White House intern became the focus of Starr's Washington grand jury, Barr has become a household face, arguing for impeachment on television, in speeches and even a scholarly article in the Texas Law Review.
"First and foremost," Barr said recently, when asked how he would approach Judiciary Committee hearings, "I intend to be very consistent. I don't intend to change."
Taking center stage has been a constant for the 49-year-old lawyer and former CIA analyst who has evolved from a young Democrat at the University of Southern California to a moderate Republican in Georgia in the early 1980s to one of Congress' most fiercely conservative members today.
That evolution has some Democrats salivating at the prospect of having Barr leading the charge against Clinton, whose popularity with the public has remained high despite the Lewinsky matter.
Some senior Republicans, too, cringe at the thought of putting Barr out front because he could give a face to the "right-wing conspiracy" that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has blamed for her husband's troubles. The House's most senior members, such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., have kept their distance from Barr's shoot-from-the-hip style.
Democratic National Committee member Bob Mulholland of California already is investigating Barr's background.
"If he's going to make accusations," Mulholland said last month, "the American people should know what his public record is."
Among topics the Democrats might exploit:
- Barr pledged in his 1994 campaign to maintain "the highest possible ethical and moral standards," just two years after he licked whipped cream off the chests of two buxom women at a charity event. While he "absolutely" regrets the incident, Barr maintains it's not relevant to his role as Clinton's chief congressional antagonist.
- Barr sponsored and won passage of a bill to deny federal benefits to same-sex partners, despite criticism that his three marriages and court fight over support payments for his sons make him an unlikely defender of the traditional family. The court fight eventually was settled, and Barr's ex-wife defended him in a 1994 campaign ad.
- Barr has been the National Rifle Association's point man in Congress, but as U.S. attorney he testified before a Georgia House panel on a bill to ban assault-style weapons. Barr insists he took no position on the bill, but key legislators, committee minutes and news accounts at the time all say he supported it.
- During his four years as U.S. attorney in Atlanta, federal judges twice reprimanded Barr for public statements, and the Justice Department investigated his office for unlawful leaks of grand jury testimony.
Barr denied leaking any such testimony and said he requested the investigation. He said critics opposed his efforts to keep the public informed about important criminal cases.
Barr won high marks for prosecuting public corruption cases in Atlanta. During his tenure, federal indictments were returned against 40 elected officials, and 39 were convicted, including former GOP Rep. Pat Swindall of Atlanta.
"I have a lot of respect for his ability," said U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob, a Democrat who sat on the federal bench in Atlanta throughout Barr's tenure.