WASHINGTON — THREE weeks ago, key Republicans on Capitol Hill were privately discounting Whitewater as a minor mystery, an intrigue that might involve unethical behavior by a few White House staffers.
Today, all that has changed. Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida talks of ``something very serious.'' Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa tells House colleagues that ``obstruction of justice is now clearly at issue.'' Smelling political smoke, the GOP is turning up the heat on the Democrats, demanding that Congress use its investigative and subpoena powers to probe every corner of Whitewater, even if the trail leads to the Oval Office.
The Republican strategy creates risks - for themselves, for Democrats, and for the Whitewater special counsel, Robert Fiske Jr., whose investigation could conceivably be compromised. But GOP leaders say the risks are worthwhile and essential.
Representative Leach, the GOP point man on Whitewater, says the special counsel's subpoenas of White House officials clearly indicate illegal actions may have been taken by the Clinton administration.
If Republicans get their way with congressional hearings - something Democrats are resisting - the GOP could be accused of undermining the work of counsel Fiske. Mr. Fiske wants Congress to hold off its inquiry, at least until he has the matter well in hand.
Moving swiftly, Fiske has called in a grand jury, subpoenaed a galaxy of White House officials, and seized voluminous records. Democrats say Fiske's actions make congressional hearings unnecessary at this time and that the GOP is playing politics. Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia calls the Republican demand for hearings ``pathetic.''
Why are Leach and the GOP pushing so hard - even if this prompts critics like Princeton historian Fred Greenstein to accuse Leach of ``sanctimony''?
The congressman tries to explain. The Whitewater affair reaches back into Arkansas at a time when Bill Clinton was the state's attorney general, and later its governor. It involves a close Clinton family friend, James McDougal, owner of the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association. The S&L was closed in 1989 at a cost to taxpayers of $50 million.
Leach told a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Friday: ``It is not a trivial story. In my judgment, this was one of the most corruptly run S&Ls in the United States of America. It was run as a private piggy bank for insiders and for the Arkansas political establishment.''
Even that might not interest Congress, but for one thing: the possibility that administration officials may have acted to protect the Clintons, or others in the White House, from the fallout from Madison.
Leach says: ``I think it is a shocking and surprising story about efforts within the administration to not allow full disclosure and to block certain actions. But the main story relates to what happened in the state of Arkansas.''
In a letter to Fiske, Leach hints what that story might entail. Officials of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), which had oversight of Madison, probed the circumstances of that costly S&L failure. Leach told Fiske: ``I am particularly concerned that officials of the Kansas City RTC office [which oversees Arkansas] are being gagged and possibly coerced by the Washington RTC office.''
Leach told reporters: ``This does not have to be a constitutional crisis.... It can be kept in the realm of public ethics ... but that will take a great deal of cooperation from the White House.''
The growing cries for Whitewater hearings are greeted with dismay by Fiske. Even so, Leach, Representative McCollum, and other Republicans insist that hearings could actually help Fiske, by bringing out new material, just as the 1970s Watergate hearings eventually helped prosecutors.
Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, says: ``I find this one of the most difficult, puzzling cases. There's just real uncertainty to know how to proceed. Leach is, in his own way, certainly nonpartisan and typically judicious. So one's instinct is to take him very seriously. Yet he has been remarkably provocative in his remarks.''
The critical issue, Dr. Mann says, is whether presidential power was used to gag investigators.
Dr. Greenstein at Princeton thinks there will ultimately be hearings, but says it is ``emblematic'' that Leach, ``someone who is a symbol of a clean, good guy, is the Joe McCarthy in this case. The whole thing is just such an attractive nuisance for the Republicans that they can't resist it.''
The Banking Committee is tentatively scheduled to hold a March 24 hearing that could delve into the Whitewater affair. Leach wants to call 40 witnesses. But the majority Democrats may refuse to allow these witnesses to be called.