Washington Bulletin

Washington Bulletin

The Ickes Bust
Sen. Pete Domenici (R., N.M.), who has made a practice of drubbing Democratic witnesses in front of the Thompson committee, didn't have any illusions about giving Harold Ickes similar treatment. "You are one of the most skilled witnesses I've ever seen," Domenici told Ickes, before he began his turn at questioning. "It's almost impossible to interrogate a man like you in 10 or 12 minutes." As it turned out, Domenici was right; Ickes slid out from under Domenici's tough line of questioning, as he did all day with other Republicans.

A potential star witness for the Thompson committee, the man closest to the alleged wrongdoing at the White House last year, proved to be something of a bust Wednesday, partly because of a major Thompson misstep, partly because of Ickes's toughness and savvy. If you want to know part of the reason why the Democrats won in 1996, and why the Thompson committee has allegedly been so reluctant to call Ickes, you need look no further than the witness table.

Thompson hurt himself, however, when he suggested that Ron Carey aide Martin Davis, one of the architects of last year's illegal Teamster fundraising scheme, and Democratic fund-raisers Laura Hartigan and Terry McAuliffe met with President Clinton in the White House last June, right smack in the time period when the Teamster fundraising conspiracy was being hatched. The clear implication is that the President might have been in on the plan.

This, of course, would be a bombshell revelation, and Thompson's statement sent reporters scurrying out of the hearing room to tell their editors of the huge developing story. Problem is it didn't check out. It turns out that the meeting in question was actually a fundraising lunch (surprise, surprise) attended by about 5 or 6 other people, making for a field day for aggrieved White House spinmeister Lanny Davis.

He attracted a huge crowd of reporters around him in the lobby as he gleefully corrected Thompson's suggestion of a private meeting, and denounced Thompson's irresponsibility. Then the pack of reporters switched over to Thompson press secretary Paul Clark and a committee lawyer who gamely tried to rehabilitate Thompson's statement, but got eaten alive by reporters who openly scoffed, asked sarcastic questions, and laughed at the answers. This was a feeding frenzy, with Thompson's staff getting torn to bits.

They tried to save their point by saying: 1) That no one knew what was discussed at the lunch. But one reporter asked incredulously if they really thought an illegal scheme was discussed at a luncheon that included, among others, the general counsel of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. At that, reporters burst out laughing. 2) That Davis and Co. arrived early for the lunch, leaving open the possibility of a private "side-bar" meeting with Clinton prior to the lunch.

But Lanny Davis (no relation to the corrupt Teamster aide—"I'm the other Davis," he joked a couple of times)—seemed to deep-six that possibility when he showed up after the committee's lunch break with records showing that all the other participants at the lunch showed up early too. Who wants to be late to a White House lunch? Davis also produced Clinton's annotated schedule for that day, which showed that prior to the lunch he was meeting with the President of Cyprus and his own schedulers, not Davis, Hartigan, and McAuliffe.

The lunch still demonstrates how close the Teamsters officials were to the White House, and it's timing was understandably suspicious. Four days after the White House lunch, the Teamsters gave $236,500 to state Democratic parties as part of what prosecutors say was part of an illegal funds-swapping scheme with the DNC. But Thompson had to apologize and it was an embarrassing misstep that muddied the story-line on a day Republicans had hoped to grill Ickes.

From the beginning, Ickes was on the offensive. His opening statement was a combative brief for the defense. And he effectively parried GOP attacks all day. When Sen. Don Nickles (R., Okla.) asked about the original copy of a now-missing Ickes memo to a potential donor, Ickes carefully explained that he may never been in possession of the original and angrily rebutted Nickles's suggestion that he may have obstructed justice. When it came to the question of whether he intervened with the Interior Department on behalf of Indian donors to the DNC—well, he didn't remember anything about it.

Overall, Ickes was Haley Barbour without the charm—a witness who conceded nothing to his accusers and oftentimes bested them in exchanges. A few weeks ago Republicans and conservatives were angry that Thompson seemed to be folding up shop as far as Clinton fundraising was concerned. Wednesday's performance makes you think—if only just for a moment—that maybe that wouldn't have been such a bad thing.

Kudos. . .
to House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (R., Ill.) who is on track to pass the Canady anti-preference bill through committee this month; and to Ward Connerly and Thomas L. "Dusty" Rhodes (NR's president), for urging Texas Gov. George W. Bush to come out for the Houston Civil Rights Initiative.

Campaign "Reform" RIP
Campaign-finance reform isn't going down because Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R., Miss.) wants to add a "poison pill" restricting unions' use of coerced dues in politics. Even if that issue were off the table, there is no filibuster-proof majority for banning soft money—let alone for taking the more controversial steps contained in McCain–Feingold. In other words, the "reform" is the poison.

That's why Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R., Maine) proposed compromise—make all membership organizations and corporations get written permission from members or stockholders before politicking—is a sideshow. It's not going to catch on, and even if it did, it won't block a filibuster.

Hence the Washington Post's display of impotent fury on Wednesday's editorial page. Sen. Lott is condemned because Tuesday's votes "made clear that a Senate majority either favors or is unwilling to appear to be in opposition to" McCain–Feingold. The Post also sneers that Lott "didn't have the votes" for his pet provision on unions. But Lott's amendment got only one less (procedural) vote than McCain–Feingold. Note the double standard: the McCain–Feingold bill should pass because it can win 53 votes, while Lott's amendment has to win 60. Note also that under either standard, consistently applied, McCain–Feingold would fail. (The scenario allowing filibusters has just played out. Without a filibuster, Lott's amendment would have passed and then enough Democrats would have abandoned the bill to defeat it.)

The big winners here are 1) Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who led the charge against McCain–Feingold and is now one of the few GOPers who isn't sheepishly denying responsibility for stopping it but instead taking credit for defending free-speech rights, and 2) Trent Lott, who kept enough of his troops together to avoid an embarrassing defeat. As late as Tuesday morning, Democrats thought that Lott didn't have 51 Republicans behind his union amendment and were planning to allow an up-or-down vote on it. Sen. Snowe had to break the bad news to Daschle: Lott had his ducks in a row, and the gambit would fail.

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Updated By:
Rich Lowry - National Political Reporter
Ramesh Ponnuru - National Reporter

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