Key House Republicans announced plans to release several hundred pages of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on Friday, as Speaker Newt Gingrich cautioned rank-and-file lawmakers against personal attacks against President Clinton.
Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said House passage of legislation, expected on Friday, will trigger the immediate release of 445 pages of the material Starr delivered to the House on Wednesday.An additional 2,000 pages will be reviewed within a matter of days by Judiciary Committee officials to see what can be released without jeopardizing the reputations of innocent people, Hyde added.
In addition, Starr deposited boxes of additional material with Congress on Wednesday, including grand jury transcripts. If is not clear when - or if - some or all of that will be made public.
Despite the comments by Hyde, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said fellow Democrats favor giving Clinton time to review the material and prepare a response before any of it is made public. "There's a great desire for fairness. There's a great desire to do this in the right way," Gephardt told reporters.
Hyde made his comments after a closed-door GOP caucus. At the same time, Gingrich took the unusual step of addressing the House from the speaker's rostrum.
"Members engaging in debate must abstain from language that is personally offensive toward the president, including references to various types of unethical behavior," he said.
"The freedom of speech in debate in the House of Representatives should never be denied or abridged," Gingrich said, quoting from House rules. "But freedom of speech in debate does not mean license to indulge in personal abuses or ridicule."
Congress has the right to criticism, he said, "but this right is subject to proper rules requiring decorum in debate."
On Capitol Hill, tourists and civil servants pause when they sense history in the making. The cameras showed scores of them watching as two black vans arrived on Capitol Hill with 36 boxes containing Starr's report. The delivery may have signaled the beginning of a race. Can Bill Clinton apologize rapidly and completely enough to prevent the contents of those boxes from destroying his presidency?
We will not know the answer for a while, but there is no mistaking that this week has brought a more somber legal and constitutional vocabulary into play. By delivering his 500-page report with supporting documents, Starr was serving notice that he believed he had found "substantial and credible information of impeachable offenses."
The abrupt delivery of the Starr report caught congressional Democrats and the White House off guard. It also speeded up the political clock for Clinton.
His initial response, delivered through his lawyer David Kendall, was terse: "There is no basis for impeachment." The president delivered the same message in an emotional meeting with skittish House Democrats on Wednesday morning.
But before they and the Senate critics within Clinton's own party decide whether they will stand with him in an impeachment fight, they want answers to less legalistic questions. Are there other bombshells out there?
As Sen. Bob Graham of Florida put it, does Clinton finally understand that "he's got a serious problem with the American people"?
They also want to know if Clinton can get beyond what another Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd, called the "delay and counterattack" strategy.
In Florida Wednesday, Clinton tried to show he could by admitting to Democratic donors that "I let this country down." Yet there was an odd language in his description of visiting a school. He spoke of wanting "to be able to conduct my life and my presidency so that all the parents of the country could feel good."
The language seemed to suggest that at some deep level the president fails to acknowledge how much of the story of his life and this presidency has been written in indelible ink.
So, at the end of one of the worst days that any modern president has experienced, here is Clinton's situation: He must produce a mammoth political effort to secure the forgiveness that he could have had with ease if he had told the truth on the day seven months ago when he wagged his finger at the American people and denied having sex "with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Moreover, only a handful of people, including Clinton, know whether those 36 boxes actually contain information that would wreck his already fragile standing with the public and his party.
Some clergy are boycotting an annual prayer breakfast Friday with President Clinton because of his moral woes. But a top official of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plans to attend.
Elder W. Don Ladd of the Seventy told the Deseret News Thursday he will attend. He said President Gordon B. Hinckley was invited but could not attend and asked him to go in his place.
Meanwhile, National Association of Evangelicals Chairman Lamar Vest told the Washington Times his group will boycott the event. The Times said that several other national clergy have chosen not to attend although many Protestants, Muslims and others will be there.