Political Washington gives up the day jobs to toil in the political goldfields


WASHINGTON -- A huge backlog in the Clinton administration's procedure for filling ambassadorships, we are being told, happened at least partly because everyone has been spooked by the fund-raising scandal.

Earlier this month Anthony Lake was forced to withdraw as the nominee for director of central intelligence -- in part because his own National Security Council staff had not briefed him about reports of China putting money into political campaigns.

And just last week Vice President Gore found himself walking on eggs on a mission to Beijing because of those same reports.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill some Republicans are arguing for delay in negotiations with the White House on key issues because of the possibility that President Clinton's bargaining position may be undermined by the same scandal.

The message is clear. The charges of corrupt fund-raising in the Democratic campaign last year are having a ripple effect throughout the government and raising serious questions about whether the president can function effectively until they are cleared up. Although Mr. Clinton's approval rating with the voters remains high, it has begun to atrophy as new issues are raised week after week.

The president himself has been accused of nothing more serious -- so far at least -- than bad taste and an excess of zeal in using White House social occasions and the Lincoln Bedroom to raise money.

The Democratic National Committee has made a de facto admission of culpability by deciding to return some $3 million in questionable contributions. But Mr. Clinton himself probably can get away with his insistence he didn't know about those contributions, even with members of the White House staff up to their eyeballs in the whole thing.

Ambassadorships often are given to big contributors, so common sense argues for a thorough vetting before choices are made. The last thing the White House needs is some nominee being obliged to defend before the Senate having been a big player in the ''soft money'' game. The delay in filling ambassadorships may make for awkward relationships abroad and some embarrassment at home, but the republic will survive.

But there is a serious risk in allowing the fund-raising controversy to dominate Washington for months on end. The whole political community is preoccupied with the issue although no indictments have been handed down or reports issued by congressional committees. Indeed, the prime topic of conversation is who is most likely to be indicted soonest.

Appointing an independent counsel to deal with the fund-raising issue might have the effect of taking it out of daily political give and take. The president and Republican leaders in Congress could begin bargaining on a budget, for example, without any expectation that either side would be in a conspicuously stronger position with the voters in another month.

No longer possible

But this is probably no longer possible. Republicans in Congress are not going to shut down their investigations of fund-raising simply because a special prosecutor is at work. Too much political gold may be mined.

Another independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, is still at work with an army of lawyers on the original Whitewater affair. This inquiry focuses on whether members of the White House staff tried to intercede in the original inquiry into Whitewater in 1993, and whether those payments to Webster Hubbell, the Clintons' old friend from Little Rock, were intended to buy his silence on Whitewater.

The outlook for the administration and Congress dealing productively with critical issues is bleak. Significant decisions await on taxes and on the shape and direction of the Medicare program. The outcome of these negotiations inevitably will be affected by which side enjoys the political leverage. And that cannot be determined until all these investigations have run their course -- and Washington begins to function again.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/31/97

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