WASHINGTON -- The effort in Congress to rewrite the law allowing for special federal prosecutors began yesterday, but with a proposal that may help doom the whole idea.
In the new bill, offered in the Senate, future special prosecutors who probe high-level government scandal would have clear-cut, wide authority to go after members of Congress who may have violated federal law -- a proposal that many lawmakers have feared.
None of the 11 special prosecutors named under the law since its initial adoption in 1978 has ever investigated a member of Congress; all of those probed, prosecuted, or convicted have been members of the executive branch.
The law is due to expire at the end of this year, and it has been losing ground on Capitol Hill steadily in recent months -- largely because of widespread criticism of the length and high cost of the 5 1/2 -year probe of the Iran-contra scandal, which still is not over. That investigation has cost nearly $32 million.
Backers of the idea of extending the law have felt a political necessity to make sure that it could reach scandals within Congress, but the very prospect of such a broadening reportedly contributed to a decision by House leaders not to bring up an extension bill for a vote, at least not this year.
In the Senate, the two key sponsors, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, and Republican William S. Cohen of Maine, decided to take on that issue directly. Their bill contains a section that would remove all doubt that the attorney general could ask for a special prosecutor to aim directly at a member of Congress.
Others parts of the proposed new measure were designed to try to mollify the critics of the Iran-contra prosecutor, Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.
While the new bill would not put any dollar ceiling on the amount a special prosecutor could spend, it would order prosecutors to watch what they spend closely, spending only for "reasonable" needs, and to follow Justice Department limits on the types and amounts of spending that might be done. The housekeeping agency for federal courts would be obliged to help prosecutors with administrative staff and give advice about spending. None of those provisions is in the existing law.
To deal with critics who are angered by Mr. Walsh's use of well-appointed offices at commercial rental rates in a new building downtown here, the bill would require all future special prosecutors to be housed in government buildings.
Mr. Levin, in introducing the bill yesterday, went to considerable lengths to defend Mr. Walsh, saying there was no proof that he was taking longer with the Iran-contra scandal case than the Justice Department would if it were handling the matter.
Mr. Walsh, the senator said, "is doing what he was asked to do. He is simply carrying out the task to which he was assigned."