Whitewater Hearings May Steal Attention From Health-Care Debate

BEGINNING on Tuesday: Whitewater - the television show.

The House Banking Committee hearings that leading Democrats tried for months to avert finally begin, to be aired live on C-Span and CNN. The Senate Banking Committee hearings begin on Friday.

The hearings will certainly pop the Whitewater story back into the news, bringing some degree of distraction just as the most extensive health-care bill in history is moving toward the House and Senate floors.

Since independent counsel Robert Fiske has already cleared the White House of legal wrongdoing on the matters before the hearing, the political questions come to the forefront.

Will these hearings put the already-strong public suspicions about President Clinton's personal integrity back in the news and color the health-care battle?

Or will the hearings clear the air, giving Mr. Fiske's report clearing the White House of criminal violations a broader audience?

After a steady winter of Whitewater allegations, Fiske's relatively positive report last month was buried under an avalanche of news about murder charges against O.J. Simpson.

``For the president, it gets better from here,'' said Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, at a Monitor breakfast Friday. ``It could have gotten worse if some of the charges were true.''

The Republicans who are driving this congressional investigation are not expecting any surprising new revelations, if only because their Democratic counterparts have put boundaries on the scope of the hearings.

Democratic allies of the Clinton administration acknowledge, however, that some of the revelations will be embarrassing to the White House.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, for example, kept a diary in which ``he says some things he wouldn't have said if he knew people would read it,'' says Mr. Frank, a member of the House Banking Committee and the designated spokesman for the White House on the Whitewater hearings.

In particular, Mr. Altman's diary describes how upset Hillary Rodman Clinton was that a special counsel had been appointed with a broad mandate to investigate her past conduct.

But more substantive issues will come up as well. The hearings will probe evidence, for example, that the top Treasury lawyer briefed Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen on a Whitewater-related investigation at a time when Mr. Bentsen has said he still knew nothing about it.

The hearings will be limited to matters that Fiske has finished investigating. That means the contacts between Treasury officials and the White House regarding the investigation by the Resolution Trust Corporation of Madison Gauranty Savings and Loan. Treasury's Mr. Altman was running the RTC. And Madison Gauranty was a failed thrift owned by a former Whitewater business partner of the Clintons.

Fiske's report found no evidence of criminal conduct, although he did not address whether government ethical standards were violated at a less-than- criminal level.

That is a question that Republicans, such as the ranking GOP member of the Banking Committee, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, would like to address in the hearing. But Mr. Leach and many of his colleagues fear that the scope of the hearings has been narrowed too much by committee chairman Henry Gonzales (D) of Texas to reveal much.

Some of the potentially newsmaking revelations have also been leaked to the press already. Congressman Frank views these leaks as deliberate, pre-emptive moves by administration allies to turn embarrassing facts into old news before the hearings give them a bigger audience.

Fiske also looked at the death of White House lawyer Vince Foster last summer and deemed it a suicide. Foster's death has provoked the most sensational theories of intrigue that have attached to the Clinton White House.

The first witnesses will be called by Chairman Gonzales, beginning with White House counsel Lloyd Cutler, who is conducting his own investigation of administration conduct. When Mr. Gonzales has run through his witness list, Mr. Leach can summon witnesses, although he does not have subpoena power.

Leach aides complain that White House officials have been reluctant to be interviewed in advance of their appearance and that whole pages of papers such as appointment calendars have been blacked out.

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