Scandal Probes Divert Lawmakers' Attention

Congress will spend less time on education, budget

Washington has become so consumed with the issue of campaign cash that America's political leaders may find it difficult to focus on other important national problems for weeks, if not months, to come.

Outside the beltway, stories about fund-raising, access, the Lincoln Bedroom, and Al Gore's phone calls may be rated much less interesting than the paint prices at Home Depot. Inside the beltway, they've become a topic of interest to the exclusion of almost all else.

This week's widening of an impending Senate money investigation reveals the political dynamic at work. Worried about appearing self-protective, moderate Repubublicans pushed a change that will allow the probe to look at a wide range of practices, and Capitol Hill as well as the White House.

The result: a guarentee that campaign finance will continue in the headlines here at least until late spring, when the investigation starts, and probably long thereafter.

That means less political attention paid to the budget, Medicare, Bosnia, or education standards. The challenge "is to do the campaign finance investigation in a way that simply doesn't override entirely the potential for getting something done on some pretty big issues," says Charles Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

If nothing else, the money story has clearly launched into media hyperspace. The peer pressure among reporters - and particularly White House reporters - is such that it may be tough to hold your head up if you appear to be interested in something else.

Consider this week's White House press conference with President Clinton and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had to stand in the East Room and listen to Clinton answer a string of questions relating to fund-raising activities - an exchange that featured prominently that evening on network news reports.

Reporters point out that it's their job to ask pointed questions, and that they have to make use of what public access to the president they have. Journalists are far from the only ones in Washington curious about campaign cash. There's genuine outrage among many who think abuses, including the raising of "soft money" and the selling of access, has reached intolerable heights.

"The way in which money has come to dominate politics is the great ethical issue of our time," claims one congressional Democratic source.

In partisan terms, Washington's money obsession is now partly a search for moral equivalence. Democrats, embarrassed by weeks of revelations about their own party, seize on allegations about wrongdoing by the GOP with glee. Thus it was congressional Democrats who earlier this week publicized documents which apparently show that in 1995 the Republican party was offering meals with then-Senate majority leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in exchange for a $45,000 contribution.

Democrats have long wanted the impending investigation by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee broadened, so that it won't produce only headlines and evidence against the White House. Thus they won a victory of sorts on Wednesday, when an important group of moderate Republicans agreed that the probe should consider "improper" (read congressional) as well as "illegal" activities.

But the exchange of partisan accusations over money has also soured an atmosphere that only a few months ago seemed sweet enough to produce everything from a balanced budget agreement to a capital gains tax cut. Budget negotiations continue behind the scenes, but Republicans have become increasingly dismissive of the president's budget plan. Tentative steps which could have led to an adjustment in the way the consumer price index is calculated, a change many experts feel must be made if the Washington is ever to see black ink again, may go for naught due to today's higher level of wrangling.

Some analysts think the campaign finance storm may even affect US foreign policy. With allegations that China tried to pump money into US elections, the administration may have to take a tougher line towards Beijing than it otherwise would have. That could deprive the US of flexibility at a time when Vice President Gore is set to go to China and a summit between Clinton and the Chinese leadership is being planned.

For its part, the White House rejects the notion that finance investigations will slow the machinery of government. "We continue to be optimistic that we are going to be able to reach bipartisan agreement on a lot of issues," says White House deputy director of communications Ann Lewis.

In turn, Republican leaders say that the Democratic defense of "everybody does it" won't hold up. And Senate majority leader Trent Lott, for one, thinks that a final settlement of the investigation scope may make a budget agreement more likely. It allows the leadership time to work on other things, he says.

* Staff writers Lawrence J. Goodrich and Skip Thurman contributed to this report.

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