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Much of what little air remained in the impeachment balloon was let out Thursday by the chief accuser himself.

Independent Counsel Ken Starr's dry rehash of what the public already knows added virtually nothing to the debate. If anything, aggressive questioning by Democrats did more to revive questions about the probe itself after Starr spent two hours trying to convince the public that there may be grounds to impeach President Clinton.

In the end, the familiar ground replowed by both sides simply made clearer than ever that the House already has what it needs to reach a decision that rejects impeachment. The only real question is what kind of formal rebuke should be issued to Clinton instead for his indefensible behavior.

That's where the House Judiciary Committee should focus its attention after Starr's long-awaited appearance failed to generate the excitement or outrage that Clinton critics had hoped for. That failure stemmed in good part from Starr's low-key, near-somnolent presentation. But it also stemmed from something much more serious: the weakness of the case itself.

Democratic hammering spotlighted questions about everything from how Starr's office intimidated Monica Lewinsky to how honest the office was with the Justice Department when seeking to have its mandate expanded.

And Starr's insistence on labeling as "obstruction" Clinton's efforts to avail himself of executive and attorney-client privilege and his penchant for drawing conclusions and ignoring contradictory testimony reminded the public of the absurd lengths to which his office has gone.

It's clear that nothing as serious as impeachment should proceed on the basis of such a probe.

That conclusion comes on top of what remains the overriding fact: The incidents themselves -- a sexual affair and coverup -- do not constitute the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that the Constitution demands for removal of a president. If Thursday's session lacked any of the drama or electricity of the Nixon impeachment hearings in 1974, it's because there is no comparison between the two scandals.

It also lacked any of the bipartisanship after Republicans blundered by letting Democrats make a legitimate issue of how much time they'd get to question Starr. The resulting party-line vote right off the bat cast the entire proceeding in partisan tones that testify as to how much this scandal really doesn't constitute a constitutional crisis.

Clinton deserves a public rebuke, and that's probably what he'll get. It's time for the committee and the full House to accept that reality and just get it over with.

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