WASHINGTON — Congress has two chambers, a House and a Senate, for "the convenience of visitors," Will Rogers once remarked. "If there is nothing funny happening in one, there is sure to be in the other."
Visitors to the U.S. Capitol this week found that the Senate--tied up for days as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over rival proposals for hearings on the Whitewater controversy--was providing all the entertainment.
After five days of threats and counterthreats, the dispute finally appeared to be on the verge of unraveling Thursday in the face of what, for many senators, was the most serious threat of all: a rare weekend session.
"Break out the cots!" thundered Majority Whip Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.) as the debate droned on. "If it takes all day Friday, all night Friday, all day Saturday . . , we will stay here until it (pending legislation) is finished."
Worried that their efforts to investigate Whitewater were creating the appearance of gridlock, weary Republicans privately began debating whether to accept a watered-down Democratic proposal for limited hearings that they initially dismissed as a "Whitewater whitewash." But it was clear that the marathon confrontation would leave deep political scars.
During five days of dilatory debate over the timing and scope of the hearings next month, Democrats accused Republicans of trying to use Whitewater to embarrass President Clinton. Republicans accused Democrats of orchestrating a cover-up by confining the scope of the hearings to matters not directly related to Clinton's financial ties to the Whitewater Development Corp. and Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, a failed Little Rock thrift, when he was governor of Arkansas in the 1980s.
The debate hardened into a fierce test of wills that stopped the Senate in its tracks after Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) forced the Democrats' Whitewater proposal through on a straight party-line vote.
Passed 56 to 43 last Tuesday, it authorized the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee to begin hearings no later than July 29 on three narrow areas already investigated by Whitewater special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. These include the suicide last summer of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster, the handling of Foster's Whitewater-related papers and contacts between White House aides and Treasury Department officials investigating the Whitewater corporation's ties to Madison Guaranty.
Republicans were angry that the hearings would not look deeper into Whitewater and would remain solidly under the Democrats' control. Led by Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) they began offering amendment after amendment to an airport construction bill to expand the scope of the hearings. But each time they did so, an equally furious Mitchell countered with a nullifying amendment.
Tempers frayed, patience ran out and the embarrassment level on both sides rose.
The first crack came when House GOP leaders agreed late Wednesday to accept the Democratic formulation for Whitewater hearings on their side of the Capitol dome.
Then, at a GOP caucus Thursday afternoon, minority senators agreed to offer a concession of their own: They would stop delaying other legislation if the Democrats would broaden the hearings to include all Whitewater-related developments since Clinton became President.