President Clinton's impeachment ordeal may be over. But Kenneth W. Starr's investigation just keeps going, like some junkyard bulldozer on cruise control. With Starr now in the fifth year of his $48 million probe, Congress is about to decide whether to renew the Ethics in Government Act that empowers open-ended inquiries by independent counsels or deep-six the law.

Conventional wisdom says the statute will be the final casualty of the Clinton-Starr duel. While Starr and four others (table) will carry on even if the law expires, many hope they are the last of their breed. It's "bad law and bad policy," says Joseph E. diGenova, a Republican ex-prosecutor who served as an independent counsel in the early '90s.

"DOUBLE HANDICAP." Still, the conventional wisdom may be wrong. There's no question that the law needs revamping, but key lawmakers are mounting a last-ditch effort to stave off extinction. It will be an uphill struggle, but with polls showing that most Americans favor modifying the law rather than ditching it, last rites are premature.

And guess who's leading the drive: Democratic Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. Both voted to acquit Clinton, and both have been harsh Starr critics. Yet they believe the law is worth saving if it can be limited to a handful of top officials and be made more difficult to trigger. "At stake," says Lieberman, "is our ability to prosecute the very people who enforce the laws."

In Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings that began on Feb. 24, critics will charge that counsels often become loose cannons answerable to no one. They have unlimited budgets and can be removed only for misconduct. Since 1978, there have been 20--seven each for the Reagan and Clinton Administrations. Cost to taxpayers: $150 million.

For Dems, Starr epitomizes the too-zealous-by-half prosecutor. For Republicans, it's Lawrence E. Walsh and his $50 million Iran-Contra probe. With both parties gunning for the statute, "It's laboring under a double handicap," says Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who chairs the panel.

The hearings should also debunk some myths. Of the 20 ICs, 13 returned no indictment. True, some cases take time and money. An eight-year Housing & Urban Development Dept. inquiry spent $23 million to win nine guilty pleas and five convictions. Still, Iran-Contra, HUD, and Monicagate are aberrations. On average, the other 17 probes took 18 months and cost less than $1 million.

Clearly, the law needs fixing. Lieberman says one idea is to let the President appoint and the Senate confirm an IC with a 12-year term. Others would impose an 18-month limit on probes. Still others favor a "Starr-lite" approach that boosts the Justice Dept.'s Public Integrity Section, which investigates elected officials not covered by the act.

Even Thompson, who was a young Watergate Committee lawyer in 1973 when President Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, wonders what would happen if a future President abuses his power. So far, he's not convinced that independent counsels are the solution. But like Lieberman and Levin, thinking about the next scandal gives him pause.

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