WASHINGTON — As Republicans and Democrats spar over starting a Senate investigation into the campaign-funding scandals of 1996, the key to credibility may be setting a deadline to finish the probe.
That deadline, more than scope or cost of the campaign-finance inquiry, would put the investigating committee on solid footing, analysts say. Without it, investigators will find it difficult to escape being painted by the same partisan brush that undermined the credibility of the Senate Whitewater probe.
As a result, several analysts say bickering Republicans and Democrats ought to set a clear goal of wrapping up any investigation before the 1998 election season.
"There used to be an unspoken tradition that sensitive congressional investigations should not continue into a campaign year if at all possible," says Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and a former investigating counsel for the Senate and House.
"As early as the Kefauver organized-crime investigation of the early 1950s, it was recognized that if you let senators conduct an investigation in an election year, they would play politics," he says.
After nearly five months of nonstop media revelations, there is no shortage of colorful, even exotic allegations of campaign wrongdoing, ranging from high-rolling donors sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House to the murky role of an Asian financial conglomerate.
With most allegations relating to the Democratic National Committee and the White House, Republicans are seeking a $6.5 million, open-ended inquiry. Democrats, with a wary eye toward 1998 congressional elections, want a less expensive, limited investigation.
The issues are expected to be resolved by the Senate Rules Committee this week when it considers the investigative budget. The investigation is being conducted by the Governmental Affairs Committee. Chairman Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee wants to hire a staff of 80 employees and set them loose on the issue for as long as it takes.
Analysts say the Senate committee risks losing its credibility if it is seen as engaging in political warfare.
"With Whitewater it went on, and on, and on," says Candace Nelson, a professor of government at American University here. "The Whitewater committee seemed to hold hearings for hearings' sake, to keep the issue in the public eye." The Whitewater investigation extended into the 1994 and '96 election seasons.
In 1987, Senate Democrats agreed with the Reagan White House to confine the Iran-contra probe to a nonelection year. The move helped boost the credibility of those hearings, analysts say.
"History suggests the rule of thumb that, for a Senate investigation to stay at the lofty truth-seeking level, it should end before the first primaries," says Mr. Tiefer. "After that it just looks like it is playing as part of the campaign."