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Foursome on key House panel will set tone for hearings stemming from Starr report

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As a boy growing up poor in Depression-era Chicago, Henry Hyde sometimes killed time reading his mother's philosophy books, pondering essays by St. Thomas Aquinas on the origins of truth.

The early lessons stayed with Mr. Hyde.

Today, the bookish, white-haired chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is vowing to uphold fact over partisan zeal as he presides over what could be this Congress's most important act: deciding whether to begin impeachment proceedings against President Clinton.

"Politics must be checked at the door," stressed Hyde. The Illinois Republican promised to avoid a "witch hunt" as his 34-member committee - manned by some of the most vocal partisans in the House - prepared to receive the report on Mr. Clinton delivered to Congress Wednesday by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Sobered as they suddenly faced the 36 boxes of documents - and the full gravity of the historic task that for months has remained an abstraction - House leaders spoke seriously of their constitutional obligations. They appeared to recognize that any brazenly partisan proceedings could fundamentally undermine Americans' trust in Congress.

Safeguarding that trust now rests, at least initially, in the hands of Hyde and three other top Republicans and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who will command Americans' attention as they comb through the Starr report in coming weeks and months.

The reputations of the four leading committeemen - especially Hyde - bodes well for fairness and preventing a political free-for-all over the report, analysts say. Still, much will depend on how steadfastly Hyde and others can resist inevitable pressures from party leaders and extremists.


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