WASHINGTON - The White House breathed easier Wednesday even though Republicans angrily dissected Attorney General Janet Reno's decision against an independent counsel and her investigators plowed ahead.
Republicans in Congress were eager to capitalize on her public split with FBI Director Louis J. Freeh over whether to seek an outside prosecutor to look into fund-raising phone calls by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
Although Reno and Freeh agreed to disagree and then traded compliments Tuesday evening, they could be explaining their differences before a House committee as early as next week.
Taking her decision right to Tuesday's deadline, Reno rejected an independent counsel, arguing that Clinton and Gore hadn't broken any federal laws by making fund-raising calls from the White House.
She defended her move with 69 pages of legal analysis and investigative findings and held a news conference, which no attorney general ever had done at such a moment.
A stern-faced Reno warned that the decision "does not mean that a person has been exonerated or that the work of the campaign finance task force has ended."
Clinton and Gore avoided gloating. Clinton's one-sentence reaction: "The attorney general made her decision based on a careful review of the law and the facts, and that's as it should be." Gore said Reno "put this issue of the phone calls behind us once and for all."
Responding to Republican criticism, Gore said Wednesday, "It's obvious there will be continued partisan attacks with political motivation. But, just remember, when you hear those tom-toms, the people who are behind the drumbeat are the same people who are trying to prevent the passage of campaign finance reform."
White House press secretary Mike McCurry offered a behind-the-scenes anecdote reflecting presidential nonchalance: "What time's the game?" Clinton asked minutes after hearing of Reno's ruling, his attention already turned to the Washington Wizards' first basketball game in their new arena.
But Republicans erupted.
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., said he would summon Reno and Freeh to a hearing next Tuesday of the House committee he chairs that is investigating campaign funding. "I think right now she is trying to protect the president," Burton said.
It was not immediately clear either would be available that day.
"It is now public that the director of the FBI shares my view that the conflicts of interest facing the Department of Justice are so great as to require the appointment of an independent counsel," added Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wrote Freeh seeking a copy of his memo to Reno that, law enforcement officials said, argued she should seek an independent counsel to probe a broad range of allegations on grounds she has a conflict investigating Clinton.
The chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign finance, Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., accused Reno of "misinterpreting the law." He called her focus on telephone solicitations too narrow, and said her legal interpretation of the law had "hamstrung" FBI investigators.
Reno denied that: "I want to make clear to everyone I am not imposing any constraint on the task force."
The telephone fund-raising inquiry was pushed into the spotlight by Republican demands and timetables set by the independent counsel law.
But it was always just a small part of a broader investigation by 120 lawyers and FBI agents into numerous campaign fund-raising transactions and figures, including possible Chinese and other foreign donations and use of the White House as a fund-raising tool. Some Republicans, including Burton, also are under scrutiny.
Although Reno concluded Gore was unaware of how Democratic Party officials used some of the contributions he raised, Reno said her investigation continues to probe that spending.
Indictments of at least two Democratic fund-raisers for concealing the identities of real donors are expected later this month.
Reno on Tuesday also rejected an independent counsel to probe former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, concluding that O'Leary was unaware a charitable contribution allegedly was solicited in return for her meeting some Chinese businessmen. But Reno said others involved remained under investigation.
Reno also must decide by Dec. 15 whether further investigation is needed into what role, if any, Clinton played when the Interior Department blocked an Indian casino that was opposed by other tribes who contributed to the Democrats.
By The Associated Press