Democrats yelp as Republicans fund review of Starr's report $1.3 million allocation could end up paying for Clinton impeachment

March 26, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER JONATHAN WEISMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Amid rancorous charges of partisanship from Democrats, senior House Republicans approved an additional $1.3 million and 18 more investigative staff members yesterday for the House committee that would weigh any impeachment bcharges against President Clinton.

Technically, the money was requested to pay for a review of a report expected to be sent to Congress by Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater special prosecutor, who is investigating whether the president committed perjury and obstructed justice.

But Democrats noted that the money could prove to be the first installment of payments toward impeachment proceedings, should any be held, and that the move was intended to undermine and embarrass the president.

All week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had deflected arguments that the money would be spent on investigating the president.

It would pay for routine oversight of Justice Department operations, including Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to appoint an independent counsel to review allegations of campaign finance abuses by the 1996 Clinton campaign, the two men said.

But House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, Gingrich's chief lieutenant, acknowledged yesterday that the money would be used to review the findings of Starr's investigation, which has lasted more than three years and has cost roughly $40 million.

"The fact is, we know Judge Starr will be sending us a report," Armey told a gaggle of reporters yesterday.

"We should be prepared to deal with it in a professional fashion."

Recognizing that his comments contradicted Gingrich's insistence that the money was intended for routine oversight, Armey signaled that he wanted to change the subject: "I was a dutiful rat, and I took the bait. I really don't want any more cheese -- I just want out of the trap."

Earlier in the day, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland had denounced Gingrich's expenditures from a discretionary fund that he called a "slush fund for partisan investigations."

Since January 1997, Gingrich has routed more than $4.5 million from a fund he controls to investigate allegations of campaign law violations by Democratic officials and union leaders.

Yesterday, Hoyer sought unsuccessfully to block the new allocation, by requiring a vote by the full House on any new spending for such inquiries.

With several like-minded colleagues, Hoyer, who has served as a Democratic foil to such Republican-led investigations, charged that the current authority given to Gingrich meant there was no accountability for how much was spent on the inquiries or how long they were allowed to continue.

"On our side of the aisle, we believe there is a coordinated, considered -- not a conspiracy -- but a coordinated effort to harass, yes, to investigate, but also to undermine the ability of the White House to perform the tasks for which it was elected," Hoyer said yesterday at the meeting of the oversight committee, which has formal authority for the speaker's fund.

Hoyer and other Democrats took pains yesterday to praise Hyde's fairness.

But any impeachment proceedings would likely collapse unless they proceeded with some bipartisan consensus that they were necessary.

And Democrats have assailed Gingrich over recent reports that he wanted to create a new select committee, rather than the Judiciary Committee, to first review Starr's impending report.

"It is not Mr. Hyde we fear, but Dr. Jekyll," joked Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Rep. Bill Thomas, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, promised Hoyer that he would seek a formal vote on any additional funds for possible impeachment hearings, and a spokesman for Hyde pledged the same.

Yet Thomas maintained the party line on uses for the new $1.3 million and would not affirm Armey's comments.

"I can't account for the majority leader," Thomas said.

Though Democrats have assailed the new expenditures as falling outside the "unforeseen" purposes for which the speaker's fund was created, Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, said congressional investigators had encountered hurdles that have forced them to seek more money.

"The obstacles we've faced is probably one of the biggest scandals in the history of our government and campaign finance," Mica said yesterday.

"The White House has, in fact, repeatedly stonewalled our committee."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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