Continue on Whitewater

WITH the mandate for the Senate Whitewater committee set to run out Feb. 29, Democrats have mounted a full-court press to quash its investigation. They point out that it's run longer than the O.J. Simpson trial. That the various inquiries have cost almost $30 million so far. That the committee chairman, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, is running a political effort to damage the president and first lady.

Senator D'Amato, who is asking for another $600,000 and an extension of the committee's deadline, has had his own brushes with ethical problems in the past. And he is a leading figure in Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign.

Yet none of this provides a good reason to halt the committee's work. The Senate has spent only about $1.4 million so far. Most of the rest was spent by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his predecessor, Robert Fiske. The length of time the investigation has taken is due as much to White House mishandling as to anything Senator D'Amato has done.

The chairman has generally acted responsibly and has usually resisted the temptation to take cheap shots - a better record than those of some other committee members.

Republicans have used the proceedings to score points off the Clintons, but the first couple and their supporters have also set themselves up by appearing to condone, if not abet, stonewalling. Democrats certainly scored politically off the Watergate and Iran-contra scandals, quite apart from questions of actual wrongdoing.

If there were really nothing to the various facets of the Whitewater affair, it would have evaporated by now. There is still no convincing evidence that the president and Mrs. Clinton have done anything wrong. The independent counsel has, however, obtained more than a dozen indictments of former Clinton associates, and the committee hearings have seen a tangled web of confused and conflicting testimony by White House staffers and friends.

Indications are that more information is out there; the committee should be allowed to follow up. The Senate should extend the committee deadline a few more months and allocate it the funds necessary to complete its work. At the same time, however, the committee must avoid actions that would compromise or damage the independent counsel's inquiry.

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