July 19, 1997

GOP Panel Sees No Major Flaw in Fund-Raising Rules


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    CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The chairman of the Republican National Committee castigated Democrats Friday for the party's fund-raising practices, but he also announced a working group's conclusions that there were no fundamental flaws in the way political campaigns are financed.

    In his first speech to the national party since he was elected in January, Jim Nicholson, the chairman, asserted that President Clinton should be held more accountable for questionable fund-raising tactics in last year's campaign that are the focus of hearings in the Senate.

    Reciting a catalog of the allegations against Clinton and his associates, Nicholson told party members at their summer meeting here that if the President was not guilty himself, he should at least be aggressive in rooting out the truth. "Mr. President, where is your outrage?" Nicholson asked. Mocking Vice President Al Gore's explanation for why he solicited donations from the White House, the chairman asked, "Was there no controlling legal authority? Was there no controlling moral authority?"

    Gov. George Voinovich of Ohio, the incoming head of the National Governors Association, joined in the critique, declaring, "You don't use the White House as where you run the sheep through and shear them as much as you possibly can."

    Nicholson, a businessman and former Republican national committeeman from Colorado, was more measured in his remarks about the White House. He argued that the problem was not in the campaign finance system, but in how the Democrats sought to evade the rules.

    In trying to bolster his case, Nicholson unveiled the conclusions of a Republican Party working group, which suggested that the best way to improve the system was not to limit spending but to do a better job of disclosing contributions to the public. The group turned aside the calls of reform advocates that the campaign system be overhauled and concluded that, if anything, candidates should spend more money on campaigns.

    The recommendations, approved unanimously by the party members Friday, called for opposing spending limits, opposing public financing of campaigns, preserving political action committees and continuing to allow parties to raise and spend "soft money," which is often used by the parties to skirt Federal campaign finance regulations.

    Nicholson's attempts to keep the attention on Democratic campaign finance woes were hampered when Gov. John M. Engler of Michigan called for the party's governors and leaders in Congress to hold a retreat outside Washington to frame a new agenda. Engler referred to internal party frustrations over the "palace intrigue," the unsuccessful coup attempt against Speaker Newt Gingrich that led to the removal of Rep. Bill Paxon of New York from the Speaker's leadership team.

    The governor urged the participants to "turn your beepers off for" a two- or three-day retreat, adding, "We need a national agenda." Party members approved the idea for a retreat in a unanimous voice vote.

    Nicholson at times seemed frustrated that, thus far, the Senate hearings have not captivated the public. He drew perhaps his most enthusiastic applause when he renewed the party's call on Janet Reno, the attorney general, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegations of Chinese efforts to infiltrate American politics.

    There is another reason Republicans here have had some difficulty keeping the focus on the Democrats' fund-raising controversies: Haley Barbour, the former Republican chairman, will testify before the Senate next week about allegations that he improperly raised money from foreign sources to help finance a Republican Party offshoot, the National Policy Forum.

    Tom Pauken, the departing Republican chairman in Texas, said in an interview that he was "not comfortable" with Barbour's fund-raising practices last year and that they made him "very nervous." He said, "I really felt there needed to be more openness in what was going on in the RNC."

    Michael Grebe, the party's general counsel, told the gathering that the inquiries on Republican fund raising and subpoenas "have been a real drain on the RNC financially" and "disrupted every division of the RNC."

    But party officials noted that their financial outlook is far better than the Democrats'. Republican officials said they whittled their debt from last year's elections to about $4 million; the Democratic Party's debt stands at roughly $14 million.

    Many Republicans gathered here seemed to be more concerned with their own party's troubles. Rhett Davis, executive director of the Republican Party in Louisiana, agreed with Engler that the party needed to better communicate what it stands for.

    "There's no message out there," Davis said in an interview. "We're not being perceived as standing for a whole lot."

    Nicholson sought to play down the concerns about Gingrich, saying at a news conference that the speaker has his "unqualified confidence and support." But, even Nicholson conceded, "We're not seen as being as focused as we really are."

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