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Gingrich Quells Rebellion; Fund-Raising Probe OKd

House: Speaker reaches compromise on committee budgets that brings most GOP dissenters into line. The action clears way for campaign finance inquiry.

March 22, 1997|MARC LACEY and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — As House Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to quash a rebellion in his ranks, the House voted along party lines Friday to launch a massive investigation of alleged fund-raising improprieties by the Clinton administration.

The inquiry guided by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, will have access to at least $12 million--more than twice the sum set aside for a separate Senate investigation that has a broader scope.

In attempting to block a budget that they called excessive, House Democrats noted that the Senate is looking into possible fund-raising improprieties by both presidential and congressional candidates during the 1996 election cycle, while the House panel has set its sights on only White House abuses.

"If there is going to be an investigation, and I strongly support one, it ought to be a fair one and a nonpartisan one," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the investigative committee. He called the millions of dollars set aside by the Republicans "a lot of money to go on a huge fishing expedition."

But Burton vowed to run the inquiry responsibly and to turn over to the House and Senate Ethics committees any congressional wrongdoing he might come across. Burton said that fresh subpoenas for information would be issued by his committee within the next three weeks and predicted that hearings would start in four to six weeks.

Officially, Burton will have $3.8 million to run his investigation. But he also will have access to a special $8-million contingency fund and millions more set aside for the regular work of his committee. The Senate, in contrast, has authorized $4.35 million for its inquiry.

Many in the GOP, even vehement opponents of campaign finance reform, are eager to shine a spotlight on the president's money-raising practices through full-blown congressional inquiries. In the allegations of improper conduct by fund-raisers and foreign-linked money reaching Democratic Party coffers, they see a prime issue for GOP use in upcoming campaigns.

Democrats, meanwhile, want the investigations to be broad enough to determine whether such questionable practices are endemic to both parties and stem from a system that needs fixing.

House Democrats temporarily succeeded in blocking the funding for Burton's committee Thursday by teaming up with fiscal conservatives within the GOP who were upset because of an overall increase in spending for all House panels.

But Gingrich fashioned a compromise to bring most of the rebels back in line Friday, agreeing to temporarily freeze the budgets for the House committees at current levels--except for the panel investigating the president.

Although Republicans eventually forced through the money for the fund-raising investigation Friday on a 213-179 vote, Thursday night's developments further exposed deep fissures among their House membership.

The Georgia speaker angered a core of conservatives earlier this week when he indicated that, to achieve a balanced-budget accord with the Clinton administration, he would be willing to delay a push for the large tax cuts that have been central to the GOP economic agenda. The 11 Republicans who joined with all House Democrats on Thursday night to block the committee funding request did so in part to signal their displeasure with Gingrich's apparent backpedaling on tax cuts.

Gingrich spoke on the House floor Friday and called a news conference later to explain his position. While insisting that he remains committed to cutting taxes this year, he acknowledged that House Republicans "do not have unanimity yet" on how to achieve their budget-balancing and tax-cutting goals.

Gingrich said that his principal concern is to give top priority to shoring up the ailing Medicare trust fund--and to do so separately from other budget and tax questions. In the process, he said, he wants to avoid the charges Democrats leveled last year that the GOP was curbing Medicare to finance tax cuts.

"Let us save Medicare now, get it done in April and get it over with. Then let's talk about how to cut taxes and balance the budget and get economic growth and strengthen families," Gingrich said.

Although most of the GOP defectors fell in line Friday, they also conducted a news conference of their own to air grievances. Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) said that conservatives across the country remain angry with what they view as a lackluster performance so far by GOP congressional leaders in pursuing the party's goals.

Scarborough decried what he termed "a growing malaise that we feel has overtaken the Republican leadership."

And Rep. Mark W. Neumann (R-Wis.) said: "Republican leaders cannot lead us down the road to higher taxes on American families, more Washington spending and higher deficits and expect us to follow. We will not. We will support our leaders if they lead us."

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