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White House Hopes To Head Off Court Battle Over Documents

The White House offered Friday night to drop most of the conditions it set on turning over disputed Whitewater documents to the Senate, including its insistence that the meeting in which the notes were taken was protected by President Clinton’s attorney-client privilege.

The proposal was made hours after the Senate Whitewater Committee voted to ask the full Senate to go to court to enforce a subpoena for the notes taken by a former White House lawyer at a confidential 1993 meeting.

The compromise proposed by the White House was an effort to head off what could be a protracted and politically costly court battle.

Senate Republicans were trying to portray the records dispute as White House “stonewalling” reminiscent of President Richard M. Nixon’s refusal to turn over material under a claim of executive privilege during the Watergate scandal.

The Clinton White House said in a statement that it will attempt in the next few days to work out its own arrangement with Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to ensure that turning over the notes would not open up to investigative scrutiny all conversations about Whitewater between the Clintons and their personal lawyers. It remained unclear whether Starr, who is investigating how confidential law enforcement information was used by the White House, would agree to the proposal.

Earlier, the White House insisted that it would not turn over the notes unless the Senate secured such an agreement with the independent counsel, as well as with other congressional committees and federal banking agencies.

“We will continue to pursue all available options to turn over the notes while protecting the president’s right to seek confidential advice from a lawyer,” the statement said.

Committee Republicans said last night they had not been informed of the new White House offer, but said they will press ahead with enforcement of the subpoena until they get the notes.

They said they do not want their investigation delayed while the White House negotiates with Starr.

At issue are the handwritten notes of former White House lawyer William Kennedy III for a Nov. 5, 1993, meeting with the Clintons’ personal lawyers. Those present included three members of the White House counsel’s office, three lawyers for the Clintons and Bruce Lindsey, a lawyer who was serving as a Clinton senior political aide.

Officials have said the meeting was held to brief the Clintons’ private attorneys about the Whitewater affair, and the notes from it are confidential under the attorney-client privilege.

Republicans have argued that the attorney-client privilege does not apply because government-paid lawyers and staff aides were at the session.