Funding probe taking shape Senate Republicans target fund raising of White House, Congress

March 07, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A potentially damaging Senate investigation of campaign fund raising by the Clinton White House could begin soon under a deal struck by Republicans yesterday that Democrats said they would not try to block.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott united his Republican colleagues around a plan that calls for an investigation of illegal activities in the election campaign last year. The investigators will be empowered to look at Republicans as well as Democrats, congressional candidates as well as the presidential contenders.

But the major focus of the investigation -- and of public hearings -- will clearly be on fund-raising activity by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. The topics will likely include allegations that the Democrats sold favors, such as White House overnights, to foreign contributors and that Gore and others may have illegally solicited campaign money at the White House.

The Senate investigation had been threatened in recent weeks by partisan strife. Some Republicans wanted it to examine only misdeeds by the Clinton administration. Democrats, seeking to take the heat off the president, insisted that the inquiry look at all questionable fund-raising activities, not just those that appear illegal.

Lott's proposal, which was approved by the Rules Committee yesterday and will be voted on by the Senate next week, represented a compromise. It called for the Senate inquiry to be completed by the end of this year, with a final report due Jan. 31, 1998. The investigation will have a budget of $4.35 million, less than its Republican chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, had sought but more than Democrats wanted to approve.

Lott failed to draw a single vote from Democrats on the Rules Committee yesterday. The Mississippi senator said he had concluded that Democratic support would never be forthcoming.

"They said they wanted less [money approved for the investigation], and this is less money," Lott said. "They said they wanted an ending date; this has one. They wanted Congress to be included. This does it. Or do they really not want an investigation to happen? Is that what's going on?"

By gaining the backing of all his majority party Republicans, Lott succeeded in isolating the Democrats. The Democrats would have had to stand alone against a congressional examination of their party's president at a time when new allegations of fund-raising misdeeds at the White House are emerging almost daily.

Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader whose own troops were jittery about the appearance of resisting the investigation, backed off yesterday on his earlier threats to filibuster a bill to finance the investigation.

"We'll voice our opinion, offer amendments and accept the consequences," the South Dakota senator told reporters yesterday.

Daschle is still seeking a broader scope for the investigation, a smaller budget of about $3 billion and a promise that Republicans will allow a floor vote by May on a campaign finance reform bill that even its sponsors say will not have enough support to pass. But Daschle lacks the votes to force such concessions.

Lott's major achievement yesterday was winning the backing of several key Republicans who have very different ideas about how the fund-raising inquiry and hearings should be conducted.

Thompson, a one-time Watergate investigator and presidential hopeful whom Lott tapped to lead the inquiry as chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, had proposed a broad $6.5 million investigation that he hoped to begin two months ago. He had already won unanimous bipartisan support from his committee for the plan and has issued dozens of subpoenas.

But Thompson's proposal ran afoul of both Democratic leaders, who called it too expensive and too open-ended, and key Republicans on the Rules Committee, who thought it was too broad.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, objected in particular to having a scope so wide that it would deal with legal campaign finance activity by members of Congress. Privately, most senators of both parties shared that concern.

Confining the inquiry to apparently illegal activities eased McConnell's concerns. But Democrats then said they feared the investigation would be so narrow that only the White House activities would be covered.

Sen. Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky, the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee, complained that "two big bites" had been taken out of the scope of the investigation because it would not examine candidates' legal, but still questionable, use of money from political parties and outside organizations.

"The rope is being drawn pretty tight on you," Ford told Thompson at the committee meeting.

"Don't jump to any conclusions," Thompson replied. But Thompson, a booming-voiced former actor who had tried to maintain his independence, acknowledged that he had been taken down a peg by the Republican leaders.

He likened himself to a stock car racer who "came as close to the wall as I could without crashing." Thompson said he had decided to accept the compromise because the investigation was on the verge of "not happening."

"I got most of what I wanted," he added.

The Senate investigation will unfold simultaneously with a similar inquiry into campaign fund-raising being conducted by a House committee.

A more private investigation is already under way at the Justice Department. It may eventually be turned over to an outside counsel.

If the Senate investigation is not completed by its deadline of year's end, Thompson has the option of requesting more time and money from the Senate. The Democrats wanted to set the limits as tight as possible so they would have a chance to block the investigation if it seemed to them to be a witch hunt.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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