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CAMPAIGN '96 : Debate on Extending Life of Whitewater Panel Set


WASHINGTON — In what is shaping up as a highly charged partisan issue, the Senate this week will decide whether to extend the life of its special Whitewater investigating committee. Battle lines are already drawn on both sides.

In debate expected to start today, Republicans will argue that the White House has so impeded their inquiry that they need an open-ended extension of the panel beyond its scheduled expiration on Thursday.

But Democratic leaders--claiming that the committee's GOP majority is only seeking to embarrass President Clinton in an election year--are so opposed to an indefinite extension that they are threatening a filibuster to force the committee to die a natural death, unless Republicans agree to a compromise.

With Democrats lacking sufficient votes to abolish the committee, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) plans to offer a compromise to extend the panel until April 3, with an additional appropriation of $185,000. The committee, created last May, has spent about $950,000 to date on a nine-month inquiry.

Daschle and other Democratic senators noted that no criminal wrongdoing has been uncovered on the part of the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Daschle said that he opposes "an open-ended fishing license" to continue Senate hearings indefinitely, especially in view of the fact that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will continue his criminal investigation for many months to come.

Starr and Congress are investigating whether the Clintons benefited illegally from an investment in an Ozark mountains development called Whitewater and whether any funds were diverted to his political campaigns.

Agreeing with Daschle, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), the panel's vice chairman, said Tuesday that "the longer it gets into an election year, the more political it becomes."

Other Democrats said that a limited extension of the committee's life is reasonable, since the White House was still locating and surrendering documents that the panel subpoenaed months ago. The White House last month located long-sought copies of 10-year-old Whitewater-related legal billing records of Mrs. Clinton, and more recently furnished 1994 notes of Whitewater strategy meetings made by White House aide Harold M. Ickes and former presidential assistant Mark D. Gearan.

However, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.), the committee chairman, told reporters Tuesday that he would oppose any effort to curtail any extension because "fixing deadlines should be avoided." D'Amato said that "we're not going to be deterred by a time line." The White House never would furnish all the records requested if it knew the committee's life would expire in another five weeks, he said.

Republicans also noted that several Arkansas witnesses cannot appear before the committee until the upcoming Little Rock fraud trial of three former Clinton associates has been completed, because their appearance could interfere with Starr's criminal proceeding. That trial, involving James B. McDougal and his ex-wife Susan--the Whitewater investment partners of the Clintons--is scheduled to begin on Monday.

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