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Starr's Next Move: Wrap Up Case Or Keep Digging?

Independent counsel's office weighs whether to subpoena the president. Clinton's lawyers have vowed to fight it.

Kenneth Starr is forging ahead with his investigation, moving the independent counsel's office toward another possible showdown with President Clinton.

* Yesterday, he called Monica Lewinsky before the grand jury for a second time, reportedly to review inconsistencies between her testimony and the president's. News reports indicate she and the president gave conflicting accounts of the nature of their relationship and of the circumstances surrounding the return of gifts the president had given the former White House intern.

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* Mr. Starr's office is also weighing subpoenaing the president, who refused to answer certain questions Monday, claiming they were too intimate. The president's lawyers have indicated they would fight a subpoena, sparking a constitutional crisis that would likely go up to the Supreme Court and could further delay Starr's report to Congress.

"The investigation has now reached a very dangerous point," says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University here. "It's a zero-sum game, in which any benefit to the independent counsel's office is a direct loss to the White House, and vice versa."

If the past is any guide, both sides will continue to play hardball, with Starr running down every lead, the president attacking his investigation, and the nation wondering when it will all be over.

UNLIKE the president, Starr has never seen the investigation as just about sex, as the White House characterizes it. Apparently unable to nail down suspected White House illegalities in Whitewater, filegate, or travelgate, his office sees the Lewinsky affair as the last opportunity to prove a pattern of wrongdoing, which explains one reason for Starr's tenacity on the sexual relationship.

Of all the subjects investigated by Starr, "the Lewinsky matter represents the clearest examples of criminal acts committed by the president," says Mr. Turley.

In his zeal to fully probe this area, Starr has gone to unusual lengths, including wiring Linda Tripp to record conversations with Ms. Lewinsky, calling Lewinsky's mother before the grand jury, and obtaining a sample of the president's DNA.

The White House has been equally tough with Starr, characterizing him as politically motivated and fighting for privileges to prevent White House lawyers and Secret Service agents from testifying. Then there was the president's attack on Starr in his Monday address.

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But the president's Starr wars are misfiring with the country's political and media elite, though he still maintains considerable public support.

Considering there would be no Lewinsky probe if the president had neither risked a sexual affair with the former intern nor lied about it, many Democrats are perplexed and even angry with Clinton. "What were we doing hearing about the special prosecutor" in Monday's speech? Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York said on an Albany radio show. Another Democrat, House member Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, is urging Clinton to resign.

As if the Lewinsky quagmire were not enough, the president is looking at perhaps yet another scandal - over campaign finances. Several news accounts say Attorney General Janet Reno is close to seeking the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff who was deeply involved with White House fund-raising in the last presidential election.

In addition, Ms. Reno is said to be reopening the Justice Department's examination of whether Vice President Al Gore violated election laws when he made fund-raising phone calls from his office.

On Martha's Vineyard, where the president is vacationing with his family, White House advisers are divided on what to do next. One group is believed to be arguing for the president to address the nation again, while another advocates staying quiet.

One change that the White House does seem set on as a result of recent events is greater coordination between the president's legal and political advisers as the investigation enters a new and critical phase. On several occasions, the two factions have been giving conflicting advice to the president - including, most recently and notably, over the tone of his Monday speech.

As Starr weighs whether to simply write up his report for Congress or go back to the president for more information, he must consider the impact of further delay on the country, warns former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who spent 6-1/2 years investigating the Iran-contra affair.

He urges Starr to wrap up his report and not to subpoena the president. If Starr can't do that, Mr. Walsh says, the House Judiciary Committee should "step in," demand the report, and bring it to a conclusion. It's no longer a question "of who wants what," he says. "The question is whether the country is being damaged by waffling and uncertainty."

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