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05/14/98- Updated 07:59 PM ET

House GOP mulls floor vote on immunity

WASHINGTON - Launching a counter-offensive to regain the initiative in a campaign fund-raising investigation, House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday he's considering a full House vote to grant immunity to four witnesses and take their testimony in the chamber.

Gingrich said he's researching whether there is any precedent for conducting an investigation in the chamber, but predicted the tactic could be "an educational experience."

Whether or not that maneuver would actually be tried, Gingrich is pushing hard to end a temporary impasse in the fiercely partisan investigation of illegal foreign money in the 1996 presidential campaign.

Democrats forced the issue Wednesday when they refused to provide a single vote to support immunity for four witnesses in the investigation led by Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

The potential witnesses include three who worked for Democratic fund-raisers and a fourth who - Burton said - may have important information on any Chinese effort to influence the 1996 presidential election.

As part of the GOP counterattack, Republicans also plan to bring two resolutions to the full House next week.

One would call on President Clinton to make public all documents related to his claims of executive privilege in the Whitewater investigation. The second would ask Clinton "to use all legal means at his disposal" to compel individuals who have left the country to return and cooperate with the House investigation.

It also would urge Clinton to call upon his friends, former associates and appointees to testify before Congress. Burton has said about 90 individuals have either fled the country or asserted their Fifth Amendment rights to avoid testimony.

While an immunity grant requires a two-thirds vote in committee, it needs only a simple majority before the Republican-led House. But the congressional entity that grants the immunity also must hear the testimony.

Gingrich said in a brief interview, "I'm looking at the possibility ... for the House to hear the witnesses. It would be an educational experience for the American people."

He said that Rep. Henry Waxman of California, senior Democrat on Burton's committee, "wanted them (the witnesses) silenced. I'm checking the precedents to see if this has been done before."

Waxman responded, "My problem has not been in giving these witnesses immunity. My problem is with Dan Burton and the (partisan) way the committee has been operated. If the speaker can figure out some way to give immunity to these witnesses ... I don't think I'd have a problem."

Gingrich also is considering sending the immunity matter to the Committee on House Oversight, headed by Rep. William Thomas, R-Calif.

The spokesman for House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, Laura Nichols, said if Gingrich uses the full House to take testimony, "That will be the beginning of the end of any hope that the House can pass anything resembling a substantive agenda for the year."

Democrats went to the House Thursday with a resolution to condemn Burton for releasing selective accounts of the recorded prison conversations of presidential friend Webster Hubbell.

Contending Burton "brought discredit upon the House," the resolution, sponsored by Gephardt, was "tabled" - or killed - without debate. The vote was 223-196. Three Democrats - Reps. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, Virgil Goode Jr. of Virginia and Ralph Hall of Texas - voted with Republicans to table the motion.

Burton said that "if the president wouldn't hide behind executive privilege, if he'd just quit flying around the world and tell the American people the truth we'd get this behind us."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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