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Rep. Hyde Mum on Clinton for Now

September 8, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Henry Hyde rode into Washington two decades ago with his sights trained against abortion. A passionate speaker, he quickly succeeded in limiting federal funding _ and became known as a conservative firebrand.

But 12 terms and a Republican revolution later, Hyde has no patience for GOP cowboys whose words could threaten Congress’ credibility as it prepares to consider President Clinton’s fate.

``Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut,″ Chairman Hyde has advised his Judiciary Committee, which would be first to review a report from Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

Hyde said in an interview earlier this year that evidence, not politics, should dictate Congress’ actions when Starr’s report arrives.

``We will not drive this investigation,″ Hyde said. ``I want it to move by its own momentum. We will cling mightily to that standard.″

In one of the most polarized committees in the House, both Republicans and Democrats agree that Hyde is well-equipped _ intellectually and temperamentally _ to handle any impeachment inquiry.

That doesn’t mean they always follow his advice. Several GOP committee members long ago flouted Hyde’s warning by calling for the president’s resignation. Some Democrats, meanwhile, declared the Lewinsky matter unworthy of impeachment proceedings.

Hyde, 74, is especially pained by the anti-Clinton rhetoric of members of the ``Republican Revolution″ class of 1994 that took control of Congress _ including Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, who filed articles of impeachment last year, two months before the world had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky.

``He will not listen to the gunfighters in his party,″ predicted Phil Corboy, a Chicago lawyer and Democrat who has been friends with ``Hank″ Hyde since grade school. ``They embarrass him.″

Despite some complaints about his distribution of $1.3 million for new committee staff, Democrats profess deep respect for the hulking chairman with the easy humor and the white mane of hair.

``His ideological passion does not make him unfair,″ said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Republicans believe Hyde carries the credibility the GOP needs to fend off charges of partisan motives.

``I have faith in Chairman Hyde. I think he will handle it in a very fair way,″ Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters on Tuesday.

A widower whose district includes first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hometown of Park Ridge, Ill., the 6-foot-3 Hyde first came to Washington on a basketball scholarship to Georgetown University. He dropped out before his sophomore year in 1944 to fight in World War II in the Navy. After the war, he returned to college, and then law school.

Hyde abandoned his parents’ Democratic Party after becoming convinced it was too friendly to the Soviets, and he was elected to the Illinois House as a Republican. There, a colleague asked him to support an abortion-rights bill. He came away appalled.

Elected to Congress six years later, in 1974, on the heels of Watergate, Hyde made a national name for himself by arguing passionately for legislation to curtail federal abortion funding. The ``Hyde amendment″ has been added to Congress’ spending bills every year since 1977.

Hyde has compared abortion to slavery and murder, leading some to call him a zealot. But he has softened his tone over the years.

``I look for the common thread in slavery, the Holocaust and abortion,″ he said from the House floor last month. ``To me, the common thread is dehumanizing people.″

Crafting his often-eloquent floor speeches upon a famously messy desk, Hyde has solidified his reputation as an orator and as a congressman unafraid to part with fellow Republicans, even on such issues as term limits, a key element of the GOP’s ``Contract With America.″

``The popularity of term limits is a measure of the low esteem our citizens have for politics and politicians,″ Hyde thundered recently from the House floor, which had come to a standstill. ``Of course, the way we attack each other and demean this institution, it’s no wonder we are held in contempt.″

Yet Hyde does not attack his opponents personally.

Such is his style that presidential candidate Bob Dole chose him as chairman of the platform committee of the 1996 Republican National Convention. Hyde helped prevent a floor fight over abortion language that threatened to overshadow Dole’s nomination.

Hyde already has taken numerous precautions behind the scenes to head off charges of partisanship when the committee considers Clinton’s conduct.

Preparing to receive the report from the independent counsel, Hyde hired Chicago law enforcement investigators and lawyers with extensive crime-fighting experience but few political connections in Washington. His chief investigator, David P. Schippers, is a Democrat.

But Hyde’s evenhandedness should not be confused with weakness, say friends familiar with his lifelong passion for winning. Corboy recalled trying to comfort Hyde after a botched basketball play in high school. ``Hank, it’s only a game,″ Corboy told him.

Hyde fired back: ``Damn it, what else is there?″

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