Dog Days Hound the White House

Clinton sweats out hearings on Whitewater and Waco, criticism on Bosnia war

YEARS from now, historians may record this sweltering third week of July as one of the most uncomfortable periods of Bill Clinton's presidency.

An unrelenting, sauna-wet heat raises sweat on the brow of even the earliest commuter. But for the president, weather may be the least of his problems. Politically, the heat has only begun to rise as Congress challenges the White House on everything from affirmative action to staff use of helicopters.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have launched twin hearings into two of the most sensitive topics of the Clinton presidency: Whitewater, the Clinton's failed real estate investments in the Ozarks; and the disastrous federal raid on the compound of a religious group in Waco, Texas, two years ago.

At the same time, the administration's foreign policy is under vigorous attack. Both Republican and Democratic senators are threatening to circumvent the president's policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where rebel Serbs continue to overrun UN-protected Muslim enclaves. The House, meanwhile, has voted to end the president's bailout of Mexico's faltering peso, and is preparing an assault on the administration's China policy.

The heat isn't likely to subside soon. With the Republican's aggressive pursuit of a balanced budget and a handful of GOP senators mounting vigorous presidential campaigns, reconciliation between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue grows only more unlikely. At the center of these challenges, says Charles Jones, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution here, is a lingering question about President Clinton's credibility as a leader.

''It is extremely difficult for people to fix an image of Clinton,'' he says. Take Bosnia: ''He's not the voice of the country on this issue.

Defense Secretary William Perry and Secretary of State Warren Christopher show up on the talk shows.... The broader issue of leadership is serious. After all, that's what knocked off both Bush and Carter.''

Clinton, indeed, has reached a critical crossroads on Bosnia. Overseas, the French are pushing to deploy at least 1,000 regular soldiers on the ground to protect the United Nations ''safe haven'' of Gorazde, a move that could disrupt NATO's delicate unity and usurp Washington's leadership on Bosnia. At home, Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has stepped up efforts to lift the UN arms embargo in Bosnia to allow government forces to better arm themselves.

The move has strong bipartisan support in the Senate. But Clinton opposes lifting the embargo because it would require US ground troops. Senator Dole has tentatively agreed to postpone the vote until after a NATO meeting in London today.

IN the domestic arena, the administration faces two sets of hearings that, even if they fail to uncover new facts, are at least an uncomfortable distraction.

A probe by the Senate Banking Committee into the Clintons' failed real estate investment in the Ozarks during the 1980s is focusing on possible misconduct by administration staff surrounding the death of White House counsel Vincent Foster.

The topic is a sensitive one for the Clintons. Foster, a longtime friend and colleague of Mrs. Clinton, committed suicide in 1993. Republicans believe White House aides may have removed documents pertaining to the Whitewater investment from Foster's office on the night of his death.

The hearings have an abiding atmosphere of partisan politics. Chairman Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, a fierce partisan himself, is a close ally of Republican presidential frontrunner Dole.

''There will be embarrassments and there will be contradictions,'' said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts on the opening day.

Dr. Jones of Brookings says the Senate probe could just be an attempt to remind the public of a potential scandal involving the Clintons while special prosecutor Kenneth Starr continues his investigation outside the spotlight.

If there is a bright spot for the White House, it may be that the Whitewater hearings are taking place at the same time that a higher profile probe is under way in the House on Waco. While Whitewater is more sensitive to the Clintons personally, an ABC/Washington Post poll this week showed that the public is more concerned about what happened at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas.

A joint House committee is investigating the 51-day siege on the compound by agents of the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1993 that led to tragedy. On the third day of testimony today, the committee will hear about the initial raid that ended in the death of four ATF agents and six Branch Davidians.

On the first day, partisan potshots over the political goals of the hearing were quelled temporarily by the graphic testimony of a 14-year-old girl who claimed that Branch Davidian leader David Koresh had sex with her when she was 10 and taught her how to commit suicide.

The central question in this probe is whether federal law enforcement acted properly or imprudently - an issue that has become a rallying point for the National Rifle Association and disparate private militias who contend that the federal government has gotten out of control.

Ultimately, the committee will try to ascertain how much Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton knew about the siege, and whether mistakes were made that led to unnecessary deaths.

''Until we learn the truth and restore accountability to government, we cannot begin to rebuild faith in federal law enforcement,'' said Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, co-chairman of the hearings.

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