Rejecting a compromise put forth by President Clinton, the Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to ask the courts to enforce a subpoena for White House documents that investigators believe hold evidence of an alleged cover-up of the Whitewater scandal.
The 51-45 vote represents the first time since Watergate that Congress has taken the president to court to obtain documents and could set up a constitutional clash not seen since President Nixon fought the release of secret White House tapes.
Republicans represented the issue as a matter of legal principle, while Democrats dismissed it as pure partisan politics.
The purpose of the vote was to enforce a subpoena issued by the Senate Whitewater investigating committee for notes of a Nov. 5, 1993, meeting of seven lawyers representing the president.
The Senate committee decided to take the matter to court even though it did not oppose Clinton’s offer to turn over the notes voluntarily. The stumbling bloc was the refusal of two House committees investigating Whitewater to embrace the same offer by Clinton.
Several weeks ago, in response to the committee subpoena, the president offered to give notes of the meeting to the committee under the condition that it would not be construed as an agreement by him to waive attorney-client privilege in all instances related to the Whitewater probe.
Although both the Senate committee and independent counsel Kenneth Starr agreed to the conditions laid down by the White House, the compromise ultimately fell apart because it was unacceptable to Republicans chairing House committees with jurisdictions over the Whitewater issue.
Clinton’s critics used the circumstances to launch a broader attack on the president’s handling of the Whitewater scandal. Republicans, led by Senate committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato of New York, portrayed the president’s refusal to surrender the documents unconditionally as part of a pattern of deception on the part of the administration that is reminiscent of Watergate.
“Wholesale memory loss, evasive answers and claims of privilege against document production,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said. “Sounds strangely familiar, doesn’t it?”
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who was an attorney on the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973, said Clinton - like Nixon - needed a reason for refusing to make the notes available.
“The president, in this case, simply doesn’t have” a reason, he said.
In response, Clinton also seized on the Watergate parallel. Clinton said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he was eager to turn over the notes and had sought ways to do so that would not involve waiving his attorney-client privilege.
“Nobody ever thought of asking President Nixon to give up his lawyer-client privilege,” Clinton said.
Clinton said he could not understand why some Republicans in Congress objected to an offer that would result in giving them the notes.
“I am dying to give these notes up,” he said. “I never wanted to keep these notes. These people won’t take yes for a answer,” he said.
The president said the notes, when they are made public, will prove that no one representing him did anything improper.
In a letter to the White House made public Wednesday, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, R-Iowa, said he had “no desire for a constitutional confrontation” but that he was concerned the White House’s terms would impede his ability to conduct investigations into Whitewater.
Even as the Senate debated, White House counsel Jack Quinn met with Leach in an effort to resolve the dispute. Although the session failed to produce a compromise, Mark Fabiani, special White House counsel for Whitewater, indicated the White House was close to achieving an agreement with Leach “that will make the Senate vote irrelevant.”
Democrats pleaded with the Senate to reject the motion on grounds that a compromise was within reach. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., described it as “an unnecessary, headlineseeking ploy for one purpose and one purpose only: to damage the president politically.”
But Republicans replied they were tired of what D’Amato called “delay and obfuscation” by the White House. “Bill Clinton has used every tool in his grasp to stonewall this investigation,” said Sen. Rod Gramms, R-Minn.