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Toward a Clean Slate

The White House and its most vocal allies on the House Judiciary Committee are protesting the committee's vote to "expand" its impeachment inquiry into President Clinton's possible wrongdoing in financing his 1996 campaign.

But committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois isn't reexamining ground already trampled over by the investigations of Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee or Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana.

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Repeating his insistence that he intends to wrap up the inquiry this year, Mr. Hyde has simply subpoenaed and reviewed memos written by the FBI director and the lead Justice Department investigator recommending that the attorney general appoint an independent counsel to examine fund-raising irregularities. The two may also be deposed.

An informant told the committee one of the memos alleges criminal wrongdoing by Mr. Clinton. Faced with such information, any impeachment investigation would be remiss not at least to review the memo in question. If there's nothing there, the president has nothing to worry about.

Far from careening out of control, Hyde has followed a careful strategy of tying up the loose ends in the various investigations of the president his GOP colleagues have conducted - not always deftly - over the past two years. When the committee votes on articles of impeachment, perhaps as early as next week, it will have complete information on what can be proven, and what cannot, about the president's involvement in any of the matters being probed. Hyde can assure militants on the GOP right, some of whom want impeachment no matter what, that the committee has considered every possible angle. Committee Democrats know this.

By the time it is finished, Hyde's inquiry will have dispatched Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, campaign-financing, and the Lewinsky affair. In the first, independent counsel Kenneth Starr says he doesn't have the evidence to charge the president. He cleared the president of wrongdoing in the White House travel-office firings and the improper use of FBI files.

Committee Republicans may unite around an article of impeachment charging presidential perjury, but it's not clear that the votes are there for obstruction-of-justice or abuse-of-power articles. It remains uncertain that an impeachment article would pass the whole House.

By the end of the process - this year, even - the investigations could be over and done with. Clinton and the Republicans will be able to start the new year with a clean slate. If so, today's critics will have protested too much.

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