House OKs hearings on Whitewater

March 23, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Bowing to weeks of political pressure, the Democratic-led House yesterday overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of a congressional investigation into President Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater affair.

The 408-to-15 vote came after Democratic leaders reached an agreement with their Republican counterparts similar to a deal made by Senate leaders last week. But the agreement leaves questions about the timing, terms and scope of any public hearings that might be held.

"This is only a first step," acknowledged Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House Republican leader, whose party had been pushing hard for the hearings. "But it's very, very meaningful that we are here at this point."

Any congressional hearings this year will likely await the end of the Washington phase of the investigation being conducted by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Robert B. Fiske Jr., and possibly after Mr. Fiske issues preliminary findings.

The Washington phase focuses in part on contacts between the White House and an independent federal agency looking into the collapse of a savings and loan that had ties to Mr. Clinton.

It thus may not be until after fall's midterm elections that congressional hearings will be able to focus on the banking, real estate and tax matters of Mr. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton when they were still in Arkansas.

But Democratic congressional leaders decided to yield on the hearings -- after insisting for weeks that a congressional inquiry is unnecessary -- to buy time and provide political protection for the lawmakers.

"We wanted to make sure House members have political cover on this issue before they go home for the Easter recess," said Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat and chief deputy whip. "We think this resolution does the trick."

In another development yesterday, David L. Hale, a former judge who claims that Mr. Clinton urged him in 1986 to make a questionable loan, pleaded guilty in Little Rock, Ark., to two fraud charges involving the operation of his lending company.

Mr. Hale's plea bargain allows him to testify with immunity before the federal grand jury in Washington hearing evidence presented by Mr. Fiske, the special prosecutor.

'Bunch of bull'

The Clintons have steadfastly denied any wrongdoing. On Monday, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Hale's charges "a bunch of bull."

Even so, congressional Democrats find themselves in what Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa calls "a Catch-22. They don't want to do anything to embarrass their president, but they don't want to look like they are trying to cover something up."

As a practical matter, a hearing or hearings on Whitewater issues could probably not begin until May at the earliest. Talks on how to structure the hearings won't be held until after Congress returns from the two-week Easter recess April 11.

In the meantime, House and Senate Democratic leaders hope to be able to meet with White House political strategists to come up with a more organized approach for dealing with Whitewater than what they admit has been a mostly seat-of-the-pants operation thus far.

In fact, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington, who has been most vociferous in resisting the notion of Whitewater hearings, was forced to reverse course yesterday because of the handling of the issue by Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Texas, the House Banking Committee chairman. On Monday, Mr. Gonzalez abruptly postponed an oversight hearing on the Resolution Trust Corporation scheduled for tomorrow at which Representative Leach intended to question dozens of witnesses on Whitewater issues related to savings and loan matters handled by the RTC.

While Mr. Gonzalez called for Whitewater hearings in a different forum, his sudden decision gave the appearance of a Democratic stonewall.

Mr. Foley considered that especially embarrassing for the House in the wake of the 98 to 0 Senate vote in favor of hearings.

Vows disclosures

Mr. Leach remains unmollified and still plans to release some information this week that he said could embarrass the president.

Mr. Leach praised what he called, "the first bipartisan commitment to bipartisan hearings." But said he intends to make a speech on the House floor summarizing the results of his own informal investigation into Whitewater issues.

Speaker Foley agreed yesterday with Mr. Leach that the oversight hearing that Mr. Gonzalez canceled must be held and that Mr. Leach has a right under House rules to call whatever witnesses he wants.

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