WASHINGTON — Angered by their Republican chairman's characterization of President Clinton as "a scumbag," Democrats on a House panel defeated a GOP move Thursday to obtain immunity for four witnesses in the ongoing investigation of campaign fund-raising abuses.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said that the scumbag remark, made by Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) last week, was "vile and repugnant."
The Indianapolis Star said that Burton told its editorial board: "If I could prove 10% of what I believe happened, he'd [Clinton] be gone. This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him."
Other committee Democrats said that Burton's slur against the president showed that Burton's yearlong inquiry into campaign abuses is "partisan" and "unprofessional."
After two hours of highly charged debate, the immunity request fell short. Although 21 Republicans voted for immunity and 19 Democrats voted against it, a two-thirds majority is required for passage.
Burton, meanwhile, did not apologize for his acerbic description of the president.
"Perhaps I could have used different and more diplomatic language to describe how I feel, but the fact is I do not believe that the president is a man of integrity," Burton told committee members. He insisted, however, that his investigation is being conducted fairly because "I set my personal feelings aside."
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry told reporters Thursday that Clinton "chooses to ignore" Burton's remark. But McCurry added with a smile that "Chairman Burton's use of a two-syllable vulgarity was rather ambitious."
Justice Department officials wrote Burton that they did not object to grants of immunity in exchange for testimony by four people: Kent La, a close business associate of Los Angeles entrepreneur Ted Sioeng; Larry Wong, a friend of convicted Democratic fund-raisers Gene and Nora Lum; and Irene Wu and Nancy Lee, former employees of Torrance businessman Johnny Chien Chuen Chung, who has pleaded guilty to election law violations.
House hearings into campaign funding irregularities so far have generated little new information. A Senate committee chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) concluded hearings last December, and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, ignoring Republican calls to seek appointment of an independent counsel, has been overseeing a Justice Department investigation.
Burton complained that his panel "has faced obstructions that no previous congressional investigation has ever had to face" in obtaining cooperation from key witnesses.
"More than 90 people have either taken the 5th [Amendment] or fled the country to avoid testifying," he said, including 53 people involved in raising money for the Democratic Party or President Clinton's reelection campaign.
In the hearing room, Burton's aides hung a large poster depicting a stone wall adorned with color photographs of the president shaking hands with two dozen key figures who have refused to testify, including Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie and Maria Hsia, both recently indicted. Democrats ridiculed what Burton labeled the "Wall of Shame."
"When I visit my children's school, I see things like this up on the wall," said Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr. (D-W.Va.). "It's childish and unprofessional for this committee."