07/14/97 - 06:21 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Details of China's role may remain hidden

WASHINGTON - Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the committee investigating political fund-raising, says it may never be known for sure if China funneled money into the U.S. elections last year.

But he says it's far too early to complain about a lack of progress in his committee's hearings.

"Everybody at the end of every day wants to breathlessly report some shocking new revelation," Thompson said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "I said at the outset that is not going to happen. These things are designed, for the most part, to be boring, and people are just going to have to learn to live with it."

Near the end of the first week, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., observed that they had a "surreal quality." The first witness, he said, was being grilled about fund-raising by politicians "who have spent hour after weary hour raising money, who have eaten bowl after bowl of Senate bean soup" with people in the hope "that next week they'll contribute to their fund-raisers."

That wasn't the only surreal thing about the opening act of the Governmental Affairs Committee's hearings. The first three days of what was supposed to be the hottest show in Washington this summer were a less-than-exciting blur of semifamiliar names, arcane terms and classic partisan argument.

Tuesday, the committee will begin examining the career of controversial fund-raiser John Huang, starting with the Indonesia-based Lippo Group and moving on to his tenure at the Commerce Department.

Democrats and Republicans on the committee have said that their goal is to reform campaign-finance system, not to score partisan points. The most-mentioned goal is a ban on the unlimited contributions to the parties called "soft money."

"The measure of success for this investigation will be whether it produces . . . substantial reform," Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, said in his opening statement Tuesday.

An ABC News/Washington Post Poll last week found that 63% of people want changes in campaign financing - and 67% say it's unlikely.

After the first week of hearings, one leading advocate of reform is pessimistic. Committee members "were elected under a system that they're now investigating," says Kent Cooper of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "Some of the members are dropping into such detail so quickly that they lose the audience. It turns into Washington lingo about inside-the-Beltway activities that have nothing to do with reform."

The authors of the most sweeping proposal in Congress believe the hearings may yet lead to reform.

"Disgust with this system is building" through the hearings, says Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "The question is whether the mood that comes out of the hearings is, 'Gee, we need to fix this.' "

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., agrees. "The hearings have succeeded in focusing attention on some of the abuses," he says. "It's going to take about three weeks before we really have a judgment as to whether it's captured the attention of the American people. I pray that it will."

Feingold says he believes the hearings have already prompted action. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has promised that the McCain-Feingold bill will be considered late this month or after the August recess, Feingold says. "This iceberg is starting to melt."

By Judy Keen and Judi Hasson, USA TODAY

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.