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Senate Campaign Probers Release Findings

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 1998; Page A06

The Senate committee investigating campaign finance finally agreed to disagree without partisan bombast, and yesterday quietly released findings detailing widespread abuses during the 1996 presidential contest.

Eight Governmental Affairs Committee Republicans approved the 1,100-page final report in a 15-minute meeting. Seven dissenting Democrats issued their minority report, to be attached to the larger document when it is presented to the full Senate Tuesday.

"It is clear we are going to have two reports," committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said. "We could revisit all those old heartaches and throw some more stones if we choose to." But they didn't, and the short meeting put a subdued ending to an enterprise that began almost exactly one year ago as an investigation of serious fund-raising abuses by President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign and lurched through 32 often vituperative and partisan public hearings at a cost of $3.5 million.

"I thought I could pull everybody together," Thompson said, by getting Democrats to acknowledge the sins of the Clinton campaign and getting Republicans to give ground on Democratic demands for campaign finance reform. "But I couldn't do it."

The issuance of the report, held up for more than a month while the Republicans negotiated its contents with the intelligence community and with each other, allowed neither Republicans nor Democrats to claim credit for substantial accomplishments.

The Republicans failed to put anyone in the administration in jail, and the Senate Republican leadership blocked campaign finance legislation a week before the committee report came out.

The Democrats, for their part, failed to find excuses for the Clinton campaign's election behavior and managed to get it to the back burner only when it was replaced by the fresher, and far easier to understand, controversy involving former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

"Whenever you stage a high-profile congressional hearing, you have two purposes -- to have a major public forum to focus on wrongdoing and to propose remedies," said the American Enterprise Institute's Norman J. Ornstein, an expert on campaign finance. "When the parties are at war, it's hard to do either."

The committee report, most of which was leaked to news organizations three weeks ago, will be available on the Internet today at the Governmental Affairs Committee Web site. The panel's Republicans and Democrats yesterday provided only summaries of their findings.

These added little of note to what is currently known about John Huang, Roger Tamraz, the Hsi Lai Temple, Vice President Gore's phone calls and the other personalities, events and campaign finance phenomena that dominated the hearings that ended last Oct. 31.

The Republican report summary concludes that the Democrats' 1996 presidential campaign "eviscerated federal fund-raising laws," "debased the White House and the presidency itself" and showed that "nothing was sacred in the President's search for campaign funds." It excused the possible sins of former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, who is under investigation by the Justice Department, in a paragraph.

The Democrats managed to avoid florid language but took pains to find a Republican transgression to match every Clinton misstep, complain again of Republican insensitivity to minority demands for subpoenas, witnesses and hearing time, and accuse Barbour of orchestrating "the most elaborate scheme" to funnel foreign money illegally into U.S. elections.

The two reports also renewed, but did not resolve, the dispute between Thompson and Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), the ranking minority member, over interpretation of the mainland Chinese government's intention to interfere with U.S. elections.

The Thompson report discusses evidence of a China "plan" and documents links between several key figures in the investigation and the Chinese government.

The minority critique takes the Thompson report to task for making "a series of speculative assertions," and suggests the China connection was "a conclusion looking for supporting information that was not available."

Despite the dueling reports, however, some experts saw more in the investigation than a list of partisan complaints:

"The most important legacy is that the investigation documented the extraordinary campaign finance abuses that occurred in 1996, and the overwhelming case that the system is totally broken and needs to be fundamentally reformed," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the Democracy 21 political reform group. "You have the chronicle, and you have the remedy."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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