09/21/97 - 11:35 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Republicans call for independent counsel

WASHINGTON - Saying their persistent demands for a special investigation had been vindicated, senior Republicans on Sunday insisted that Attorney General Janet Reno must now seek appointment of an independent counsel to look into White House fund-raising activities.

"I honestly think she has no other choice," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill. "There is sufficient and credible evidence sufficient" for her to ask a panel of federal judges to appoint an independent counsel, added Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "She could do that tomorrow."

On Saturday the Justice Department revealed it has opened a 30-day review of President Clinton's involvement in campaign money-raising irregularities during the 1996 presidential campaign. During that time, Reno must decide whether to launch a more extensive 90-day review that could lead to her petitioning the court for appointment of a special prosecutor.

"We suggested she should have done that seven months ago," Hatch said on NBC's Meet the Press. "She ought to get the burden off her back."

Republicans have been pressing Reno to invoke the Independent Counsel Act that comes into effect when senior members of an administration are suspected of legal violations.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said on CBS' Face the Nation that "the Attorney General should resign" to take responsibility for delays in the investigation. Other GOP lawmakers have urged that impeachment procedures begin against her if she fails to move for a special prosecutor.

She has so far resisted, suggesting that it is unclear whether a century-old law banning federal employees from seeking political donations from federal offices is applicable to the president and vice president.

But a Justice-FBI probe into fund-raising activities has taken on new life in recent weeks with reports that donations solicited by Vice President Al Gore, and possibly Clinton, were moved from soft money accounts, which may be outside the law, to hard money ledgers. Soft money refers to the unrestricted contributions to national political parties while hard money is directed at certain candidates or races.

White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said on CNN's Late Edition that the president did nothing illegal and "we plan on cooperating" fully with the Reno investigation.

Both Clinton and Gore have sought to play down the possibility of any political damage from the latest development. "I don't know anything about it," Clinton said on Air Force One as he returned from a trip to California. Gore said in Moscow that it would have no effect on his visit to Russia.

The investigation has taken a toll on public opinion of Gore, CBS News reported Sunday. Just 21% of 1,051 adults have a favorable view of Gore, the lowest in any CBS poll since he became Clinton's running mate in 1992. More than half are undecided and a quarter have an unfavorable view, CBS said.

The poll was taken by phone Thursday through Saturday, and results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Hatch said the real issue was not whether Clinton and Gore made improper phone calls from the White House, but on whether foreign governments - namely China - illegally tried to influence the presidential election and on whether White House-generated donations went into hard money accounts.

"This is another Agnew-Nixon situation," said Hyde, also on NBC in reference to the Watergate investigation during the Nixon administration.

But Democrats on the Sunday news shows stressed that a Justice Department

decision to call for an independent counsel was far from certain and that Reno must be allowed to make that decision based on the evidence.

"She's been abused almost out of her mind and I wish my colleagues would lighten up and let her do her job," said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding hearings on campaign finance irregularities, told ABC's "This Week" that never in the 114 years of the statute has anyone been prosecuted for making phone calls or soliciting nonfederal employees from federal property.

A Republican on the committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said that while appointment of an independent counsel was "inevitable," he agreed with Democrats that attention should be focused not so much on past problems as on future reforms.

"It's much more important that we reform campaign finances and take the soft money out and deal with independent expenditures than it is that we wrestle with these fine legal issues and try to convict the vice president or the president," Specter said on ABC.

The Governmental Affairs Committee next week will turn away from its hearings concentrating on possible Democratic transgressions in the last election and look at the larger issue of soft money in politics.

By The Associated Press

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