Whitewater Pulls Democrats Deep Into Its Swirls

Broad congressional hearings appear inevitable, as Fiske deepens legal probe

LIKE canoeists on a turbulent Class 5 river, Democrats in the White House and Congress are being tossed about by the Whitewater rapids as they paddle desperately for safer water.

Republicans and a special prosecutor keep making the waves bigger and the current faster.

Twin Whitewater problems confront Democrats this week.

On Capitol Hill, party leaders faced what they feared would be a media circus, a Whitewater ``donnybrook'' in hearings on March 24 before the House Banking Committee. Republicans had hoped to raise the Whitewater issue there with a star-studded cast of witnesses, including Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and his deputy, Roger Altman.

Banking chairman Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas unexpectedly canceled the hearings, which are mandated by law, and accused Republicans of planning ``to launch yet another smoke bomb at the White House.''

Ironically, all sides agree hearings are eventually inevitable. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says postponing the banking committee hearings will just ``build anticipation'' among the public.

Instead of this week's hearings, Representative Gonzalez suggested that a select House committee be appointed to probe Whitewater. A select committee, opposed by the White House, would have far broader powers to probe all aspects of the affair.

Meanwhile, special prosecutor Robert Fiske added to the political pressure on Democrats when he struck a deal with David Hale, an indicted former Arkansas judge, to testify before a federal grand jury.

Mr. Hale, who was appointed to his judgeship by then-Governor Clinton, agreed to a plea bargain on fraud charges with Mr. Fiske in exchange for his testimony, according to wire reports.

Hale, who once ran a company that handled federally backed loans for small businesses, has blamed the president for his legal troubles. He alleged that Clinton once pressured him to make a $300,000 loan to one of the Clinton's business partners in Whitewater.

The president has denied ever pressuring Hale. On a Florida trip earlier this week, Clinton said of the latest accusation: ``It's just all a bunch of bull.''

The president's abruptness was reflected in Washington, where Whitewater made tempers flare.

Sharp words

Chairman Gonzalez lashed out at the senior Republican on the banking committee, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. Gonzalez accused Representative Leach of violating a pledge not to use congressional hearings to trespass into the area of the special counsel's investigation.

Leach had urged Gonzalez to call 18 witnesses for the hearings, including Hale. Gonzalez charged in a letter to Leach that the Iowan was ``premeditatedly intending to launch into a prosecutorial or judicial adventure'' that could endanger the work of the special Whitewater counsel.

Gonzalez said: ``In view of your obdurate and obstinate refusal to honor the special counsel's request, and, in addition, your threats to ... create a `donnybrook,' I have no recourse but to postpone the hearing set for Thursday....''

The chairman also fired off a press release accusing Republicans of using his bank hearings to ``haul out their series of half-truths, old rumors, half-baked conspiracy theories and outright lies about the Clintons.''

In a letter to House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, Gonzalez said angrily: ``I have never seen a more malicious campaign of character assassination than this.''

Gonzalez's outburst brought an apology, however, to Leach and the Republicans from Speaker Foley, one of whose roles is to maintain comity among House members.

Efforts for agreement

The issue won't rest there. As this is written, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House were initiating efforts to reach an agreement - similar to one in the Senate - for eventual Whitewater hearings.

At the same time, Leach told reporters that in lieu of this week's canceled bank hearings, he was preparing a major address for the House floor on the Whitewater affair.

Leach, whose staff has delved into the circumstances surrounding the Whitewater real estate development once partly owned by the Clintons, says he would have preferred that persons with direct knowledge give sworn testimony before Gonzalez's committee. But Leach says the information he has unearthed must be made public.

Dr. Mann at Brookings says the irony for Democrats is that every effort to resist full disclosure on Whitewater adds to the problem. ``Every step of the way they made a little story into a big story,'' he says.

What worries some analysts in Washington is that the longer Whitewater roils, the more distracting it becomes for senior officials in Washington.

For example, some commentators here are blaming Whitewater distractions for the recent unsuccessful trip of Secretary of State Warren Christopher to China.

``Any time the president is under this kind of siege, it is bound to have an impact, and that is mostly seen in the foreign policy area,'' Mann says.

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