Campaign Probe Unlikely To Offer Watergate's Grip

Congress's investigation into campaign-finance scandals begins tomorrow amid partisan squabbles and other problems

Congressional hearings dealing with 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses finally open on the national stage this week - and it's not clear whether the drama will be as gripping and important as its Republican producers originally intended.

Senate and House money probes have been bedeviled by a host of problems. Key witnesses have fled overseas or taken the Fifth Amendment. Organization has been slowed by partisan bitterness. Staffs have been riven by personality conflicts, and the White House has preemptively disclosed bits of investigation plot.

Revelations about the role of foreign money in US politics could yet grab the public's attention. But the days when GOP leaders dreamed of a show with the impact of the Watergate hearings may be gone. They won't even be able to use the old Russell Building Caucus Room where the Watergate inquiry took place, as originally planned. When Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee gavels his first investigatory session into order on July 8 it will be in a stark - but larger - modern chamber.

"Unless there's something truly surprising in the results of the investigation, most Americans are never even going to tune in," says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia government professor and campaign-finance expert.

Serious allegations about illegal foreign contributions to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton reelection campaign are the principal focus of both congressional investigations and a separate probe by the Justice Department. In particular, panel members are interested in the activities of John Huang, the mysterious fund-raiser whose ties to China, Indonesian conglomerates, Buddhist nuns, and the DNC have placed him at the center of the campaign-finance scandal.

Among the key questions investigators want answered: Did foreign governments make illegal contributions to US campaigns in hopes of winning undue influence? Did Mr. Huang and his associates abet this process, laundering the money to conceal its origins?

Senator Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee gets first crack at trying to produce public answers to these inquiries. After Tuesday's opening session, the Senate panel will hold televised hearings two or three days a week through July; later in the year members will hold a second phase of hearings dealing with the use of so-called "soft money" by both political parties.

The House, for its part, has yet to schedule counterpart sessions. Republicans and Democrats on the House panel in question, the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, have squabbled bitterly over timing and tactics; last week the panel's chief counsel quit after clashing repeatedly with his own chief investigator, throwing the House probe into further disarray.

Still, after the klieg lights turn on Tuesday, according to Thompson, the campaign-finance probes will have more impact than Washington conventional wisdom now holds. The Senate's subpoena list of 30 witnesses includes such notables as President Clinton's closest aide, Bruce Lindsey, and Hillary Rodham Clinton's longtime chief of staff, Margaret Williams.

"The curtain will be pulled back on the operation of the people's government," Thompson said July 1.

But others say that the most notable thing about the witness list may be its omissions. Among the key witnesses who've indicated they will invoke their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination and decline to testify are Huang himself and former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell. Arkansas businessman and Huang associate Charles Yah Lin Trie has gone them one better: He's left the US entirely and told reporters he's prepared to never return.

And the Senate panel, like its House counterpart, has been slowed by political dissension. Chairman Thompson and the panel's top Democrat, Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, don't appear to trust each other's motives. A recent dispute about immunity from prosecution for some low-level witnesses was solved by a pair of committee members with better personal ties - Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania.

It's a far cry from the Iran-contra hearings of the Reagan era, when the Republican minority and Democratic majority worked together relatively smoothly despite the charged nature of the proceedings. "When they came out they pledged bipartisanship, but so far it's been partisan and ugly," says Paul Herrnson, a University of Maryland professor of government and a campaign-finance expert.

The squabbling holds risks for both sides, say experts. Committee Democrats don't want to come across as obstructionist and eager to cover up possible abuses. Republicans, for their part, could spark a public backlash if they appear eager to tar Democrats yet unwilling to investigate the GOP's own practices.

Summer news doldrums could yet result in large audiences for hearing findings. But proponents of campaign-finance reform worry that one thing that won't result from the current investigations is sweeping change in the US political money system.

"Enough finger pointing," says Ellen Miller, head of the watchdog group Public Campaign. "Let's get on with the business of changing the campaign-finance system. That's the debate we should be having."

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