10/14/97 - 01:40 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reno to face tough questioning

WASHINGTON - The timing could not be worse.

Already, Republicans are demanding Attorney General Janet Reno's head for refusing to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate President Clinton's fund-raising.

Now, Reno may be about to accept the recommendation of a Justice Department task force and announce, once again, that she will not cede to Republicans' wishes.

Reno has a Wednesday deadline to decide whether to extend a 30-day review of whether Clinton broke the law by soliciting contributions from the White House.

That same day, she's scheduled to appear before a House of Representatives committee questioning her management of the Justice Department.

Over the weekend, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said Reno "looks like a fool" for not turning the probe over to an independent counsel.

Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin said on Monday that if Reno does not expand the investigation of Clinton's fund-raising, it won't come as a surprise to Republicans.

Some have already been calling for her resignation or impeachment. There's not much more they can say if she doesn't change her mind, Martin said. But, she added, "I don't think they're going to stop beating the drums."

When Reno appears Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, she'll be pressed on why she hasn't asked for an independent counsel.

The committe chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., has has expressed wonder at her performance. He said last week that the Justice Department investigation "belongs on the Discovery Channel. Every week we discover something else. Maybe in 25 years, we'll learn the truth."

His committee made two formal requests, in March and September, that Reno ask a panel of three federal judges to appoint an independent counsel. She rejected both.

She had rejected the same request made in August by House government reform committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind.

Republicans have not been hesitant to accuse Reno of acting more like Clinton's defense lawyer than the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a member of the committee probing campaign fund-raising, last week said the Senate Judiciary Committee also should "call the attorney general in for a hearing to try to determine what, in fact, she, the Department of Justice and the FBI have been doing."

The normally reserved Reno, for her part, has defended herself in plain terms.

She said Sunday, "What I'm trying to do is to make sure that I follow the evidence. I follow the law. I don't follow innuendo. I don't follow shrill accusations."

And she has publicly voiced her anger at White House handling of subpoenas for all records relevant to the investigation. The White House, asked specifically for videotapes of Clinton entertaining donors at White House coffees, first said there were none but later produced 44, pleading ineptitude, not obstruction of justice. Reno says the tapes show no evidence of law-breaking.

Reno has other fund-raising investigations under way, one of phone calls to big donors from Vice President Gore and one of former Energy secretary Hazel O'Leary, accused of trading access for a donation to her favorite charity.

Clinton, traveling in South America on Monday, defended Reno and has rejected calls that he seek her resignation.

"You think she was mad?" Clinton said about Reno's anger over the tapes. "You should have been there when I heard about it."

By Gary Fields and Mimi Hall, USA TODAY