Neither party is eager to probe very deeply into fund-raising abuse Investigations stall in both houses as issue strikes at self-interest

March 05, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite almost-daily revelations about questionable campaign fund raising by the Clinton White House, congressional efforts to investigate abuses and to enact reforms are being derailed by fears of where it all might lead.

Republicans want to investigate what they say was President Clinton's merchandising of the White House. But they are also concerned that the spotlight could turn on their own party and on Congress. Democrats, who have been determined to change the subject from past misdeeds to future reforms, don't appear to actually want reform, either.

A partisan fight has broken out in the Senate over a bill to finance the investigation and has delayed action on it until next week at the earliest. Yet there isn't much enthusiasm for the inquiry among senators of either party.

And a Democratic demand that any inquiry be accompanied by a bill to limit campaign spending by congressional candidates is being called an act of sabotage by the bill's chief Republican sponsor.

No one appears on the high road as Congress struggles with the seemingly impossible twin tasks of investigating improper or illegal campaign fund-raising activity and trying to reshape laws to discourage abuses. Both issues strike exquisitely close to the heart of lawmakers' personal self-interest.

"This kind of thing happens every time campaign finance reform becomes a hot issue: Everybody in Congress tries to figure out ways to kill it without getting blamed," said Edwin H. Davis, a lobbyist for Common Cause.

Four months after the 1996 elections, the only real progress has been made by Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who chairs the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. Burton issued dozens of subpoenas that resulted last week in a trove of documents being released from the files of Harold Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff.

The Ickes documents illuminated details of Clinton's personal involvement in providing Democratic donors with such White House perks as jogging dates with the president and sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom.

But Burton, too, is running into complaints that he acted on his own, without consulting even the Republican members of his committee -- much less the Democrats -- about his investigation's scope, timing or subpoenas.

More serious is the dilemma of Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican and presidential hopeful, who has been assigned to lead the inquiry in the Senate into fund-raising abuses. He cannot get started because Republicans as well as Democrats have resisted his request for money.

Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Republicans who hold critical votes on the Rules Committee, objected to Thompson's plan to conduct a broad bipartisan investigation that would include congressional races as well as the presidential campaign. They say they fear that if the Senate inquiry were made too broad, it would lose its intended focus on Clinton's wrongdoing.

Democrats, for their part, complained that Thompson's proposed million budget was too high.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott considered taking the funding issue directly to a vote by the Senate this week. He figured he would call the Democrats' bluff by forcing them into a highly public vote over whether to protect Clinton and Vice President Al Gore from the congressional inquiry.

But Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, devised a clever counter-maneuver: a plan that could abort the fund-raising investigation and kill campaign finance reform, while planting Republican fingerprints on the wreckage.

Daschle simply insisted on linking any investigation with campaign-spending reform legislation. He figured that Republicans would never vote for a bill to provide money for the investigation if it also required Senate action on campaign finance reform.

The Democratic leader says he supports both a wide-open congressional investigation and legislation to reform campaign finance. But neither of the bill's chief sponsors -- Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat -- approved of Daschle's tactic of insisting on a May 1 date to bring their legislation up for Senate debate. They say they won't have the public support they need to pass it by then.

Daschle, who doesn't much like the McCain-Feingold bill, figured that championing the measure would allow the Democrats to take the high road, while the Republicans did the dirty work.

"The effect of this is to kill two birds with one stone," McCain said.

Daschle's tactic forced Lott to back off and regroup with his Republican colleagues. They are now putting together a new proposal to finance Thompson's committee -- with a smaller budget and a narrowed mission that excludes Congress -- that is expected to be unveiled by Friday.

"It's an exercise in cynicism by everyone," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a public interest lobby. "Daschle and the Democrats want to cut off the investigation of the White House. The Republicans want to cut off an investigation of Congress. I don't think linking it to the McCain-Feingold bill helps that bill at all."

Lott has stepped up his calls for the appointment of an independent counsel who presumably could relieve him of much of the burden of the fund-raising investigation.

But Daschle, who has in the past expressed support for the appointment of the special counsel, reversed course after Clinton reportedly called him to complain.

He objected yesterday that any new outside counsel would be appointed by the same three-judge panel that selected Kenneth W. Starr to be the Whitewater independent counsel.

Daschle called Starr a Republican activist whose performance has been tainted by conflicts of interests.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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