Starr's Paula Problem

-- Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr is starting to feel like the loneliest man in Washington. U.S. District Court Judge Susan Webber Wright's Apr. 1 bombshell, tossing out Paula Jones's three-year-old sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton, is more than a stunning victory for the White House. It could further undermine Starr's efforts to pin obstruction of justice charges on the President.

Jones's pursuit of Clinton was "always a weak case," says NYU law professor Stephen Gillers. Technically, Starr's case is unaffected--he had no real interest in whether the President engaged in a pattern of abusive sexual behavior--but the Jones upset could leave him on shakier legal ground.

Starr's position already was weakened by Wright's February ruling that allegations Clinton urged former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky to lie under oath could not be included in the Jones matter. Now, Starr must show that the President obstructed justice in a case that has evaporated.

But Starr's biggest problem is political. Starr is expected to deliver his findings later this year to the House of Representatives, which is already planning for possible impeachment proceedings. Now Hill Republicans have to consider the increased political risk to themselves if they launch proceedings that the public sees as a partisan witch-hunt. Starr could still find a pattern of obstruction of justice. But with Clinton on a roll, fewer and fewer Republicans will want to handle the hot potato that Starr lobs their way. The result: more pressure for Starr to head home.

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