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Recent comments from Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., the man who is overseeing the House's impeachment review, leave the troubling impression that he is either playing politics with an enormously serious situation or being directed by behind-the-scenes powers.

Either way, his actions threaten to prolong a situation that can only work against the interests of a country desperately in need of strong leadership on an array of foreign and domestic issues.

Recently, Hyde said he was not looking to widen the scope of the investigation beyond Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report. Then he backed off that by saying the Judiciary Committee, of which he is the chair, was not limited to considering only material from Starr. Now, Hyde says the committee may consider information on President Clinton's campaign financing from his 1996 re-election campaign.

Why is there such confusion? Perhaps Hyde is trying to simultaneously play to the GOP's core constituency, which wants the president impeached under any circumstances, and the growing number of Americans who are sick of the whole matter and just want the country's leaders to move on.

Or maybe the reason is that Hyde really thinks one thing, and then is pulled in a different direction by another force. The name of Newt Gingrich pops easily to mind here.

Hyde, to his credit, has made some conciliatory gestures to Democrats. But he needs to focus on the matter at hand. The only thing he and his committee should be concentrating on is the Starr report and whether anything in it constitutes grounds for impeachment. As we said before, the report is basically about sex and does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. As the world economy teeters on the precipice of panic, Israel and Palestinians near an agreement and other urgent matters from Serbia to health care cry out for attention, Clinton needs to apply all of his energies to his job.

That's not going to happen if Hyde needlessly widens the review to superfluous matters. The debate on impeachment should center on the Starr report, not campaign finance -- unless Republicans are so eager to get rid of Clinton that they'll keep throwing charges until something sticks.

Among Hyde's comments over the last few days was this: The committee does not want to become "a catchall magnet." He ought to stick to that plan.

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