WASHINGTON - Sen. Fred Thompson, acknowledging declining support among fellow senators for his investigation of alleged fund-raising violations, announced Friday he was suspending hearings and said the probe will not be extended beyond the year-end deadline.
Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said he reserved the right to call additional hearings if the need arises. But he told reporters that there were not enough votes to keep the investigation going next year - as he would like.
"I can count as well as the next guy," the Tennessee Republican said, noting that it would take 60 votes to break a Senate floor filibuster on the issue. He admitted that some Republicans don't want the investigation extended.
Senior Republicans, speaking on grounds of anonymity, had said earlier that party leaders expressed little interest in extending Thompson's investigation beyond this year.
Among the reasons discussed at a meeting earlier this week, according to three sources, was concern that the hearings have not produced a blockbuster disclosure and have not stayed focused on Democratic misdeeds.
Thompson noted that he had been harshly critical of the Justice Department's handling of its separate fund-raising investigation, but said the agency "seems energized now."
"It came to a point where I felt like we were harming our country's perception of our system of justice," he said of the probe spearheaded by Attorney General Janet Reno. "... And I'm beginning to see some things now that indicate that they are, indeed, on the job."
"As to who's responsible for what (regarding violations of election laws), everybody will have a chance to debate that," Thompson said.
He said his committee "did not try someone and convict them in the Senate," and said "the major revealer of information on this has been the White House. Unfortunately, it was only because someone was on their heels. ... Yet, a lot has happened since June and July, when we really got started."
Only a day earlier Thompson had dismissed as "rank speculation" reports that his hearings would draw to a close this year.
Republican sources had said that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott determined the lack of interest during a leadership meeting on Tuesday, just after he received a letter from Thompson asking for more time.
Lott, R-Miss., asked whether any of the leaders present favored extending the life of the Thompson committee beyond the end of the year.
No one did, the Republicans said.
Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., said Tuesday that he wanted Thompson's investigations ended. Nickles is the No. 2 Senate GOP leader and a member of Thompson's committee.
"You can investigate everything for five years and you still wouldn't touch it," Nickles said. "You go after the most visible, most egregious facts and then close down."
If not, investigators "dilute what you've already covered," Nickles said at the time.
Two GOP senators said senior Republicans were unhappy that former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour was sharply questioned about his ties to a tax-exempt group.
A federal grand jury is investigating a loan involving Barbour that went to the tax-exempt group, freeing up money to pay off $1.6 million in loans owed the RNC in 1994.
In addition, one senator said, the general feeling around the room was that Thompson's mandate was to "deal with alleged improprieties" but that he strayed too often into promoting campaign finance reform.
Thompson has been one of a small number of Republican senators to endorse campaign finance legislation backed by most Democrats, and at one point interrupted the investigative hearings to hold a session devoted to possible changes in federal election law.
A Republican senator who asked not to be named said GOP leaders believe Thompson, viewed as a possible presidential candidate in 2000, changed the committee's focus at one point to campaign finance legislation.
Lott has expressed frustration in the past with the pace and direction of the hearings, believing that Thompson has not been the attack dog he had hoped. In a radio interview this month, Lott said he had been "disappointed" that the hearings had shifted away from wrongdoing and toward legislative proposals.
But asked Thursday whether the time had come to shut down the hearings, Lott said, "It's premature to say."
Thompson's hearings have failed to prove the GOP's most serious charge - that the Chinese government tried to sway the American presidential elections, the Republicans said.
The GOP leaders' lack of interest in the hearings reflects the public's lack of attention to the proceedings, polls show.
By The Associated Press
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