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04/23/98- Updated 01:22 PM ET

Democrats block immunity request

WASHINGTON - A Republican committee chairman, under siege by Democrats for using a derogatory term against President Clinton, admitted Thursday he could have "used more diplomatic language." But Rep. Dan Burton said he still doesn't believe that Clinton is "a man of integrity."

Democrats infuriated by the Indiana Republican's remarks last week also complained that the House Government Oversight Committee chairman was running a coercive campaign investigation of Clinton's fund-raising in the 1996 campaign. They blocked his request to approve immunity for four witnesses.

Burton said that in calling Clinton a "scumbag," he was expressing his frustration that "90 people - many members of the present administration or close friends of the president - have headed for the hills," refusing to cooperate with the investigation of illegal foreign political contributions.

Ranking Democrat Henry Waxman of California, whose party must supply some of the two-thirds margin needed for immunity, said Democrats would oppose the request because Burton refused to investigate the backgrounds of the witnesses. A prior witness was granted immunity and unknowingly protected from potentially serious tax and immigration violations, he said.

Waxman said "it would be unforgivable of us to sit by" and allow Burton to exert "arbitrary coercive, abusive" power over the committee and to call the president a "scumbag."

He said that if Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr used that word against Clinton, "Mr. Starr would have to resign immediately because it would be clear he lacked the right temperament and judgment for his sensitive job."

He said he was considering a motion on the House floor to censure Burton "or remove you as the head of this investigation, or as the committee chair. ..."

There were 21 votes for immunity and 19 against, well short of the two-thirds majority needed. The vote was along strict party lines.

But the immunity issue became virtually an after-thought as the meeting plummeted into name-calling from both sides of the aisle.

"I feel almost embarrassed to be part of this debate. I may take a shower when we're through," said Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va.

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill. said the sniping was "like a dance: how low can you go."

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt also took aim at Burton, and said his recent comments about Clinton raise a doubt of "whether someone is really equipped to do this according to the law and the rules of the House."

Gephardt criticized Burton's investigation on other grounds, saying he had issued hundreds of subpoenas without committee authorization, for example, and noting reports that Burton intended to release tapes of private telephone conversations that former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell had while in jail.

Waxman accused Burton of planning to release intimate Hubbell telephone conversations that were unconnected to the investigation, but Burton said the personal material would be deleted.

Burton told a committee meeting, "Perhaps I could have used different more diplomatic language to describe how I feel (about Clinton), but the fact is I do not believe that the president is a man of integrity."

White House press secretary Mike McCurry poked fun at Burton's intelligence. "The use of a two syllable vulgarity by the chairman was rather ambitious," McCurry said Thursday.

Burton identified the individuals he wants to immunize as:

  • Irene Wu, office manager and chief assistant to Democratic fund raiser Johnny Chung. Chung has pleaded guilty to charges of funneling $20,000 in illegal contributions to the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign and to charges involving an $8,000 donation to the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., tax evasion and fraudulently obtaining a $157,500 loan on his home.
  • Nance Lee, another Chung employee.
  • Larry Wong, who admitted making political contributions with money provided to him by a company owned by two Democratic fund raisers, Nora and Gene Lum. The Lums were each sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined $30,000 in September for using fake donors to conceal their $50,000 in illegal contributions.
  • Kent La, a business associate of Ted Sioeng, a businessman who has been linked to foreign contributions.

By The Associated Press

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