With the cooperation of 42 Democrats, the Republican-dominated Senate voted Wednesday to establish a special committee to investigate the complex of issues surrounding Bill and Hillary Clinton’s investments in the Whitewater real estate venture.
The resulting panel, approved in a 96-3 vote, would be the first such Senate investigative committee since the Senate joined the House in probing an arms-for-hostages scheme involving Iran and the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan administration.
This Special Senate Committee will be chaired by Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., an outspoken critic of the Clinton administration, and co-chaired by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., a lawmaker known for his judicious temperament who served on both the Iran-Contra committee and on the committees that voted to impeach President Nixon after the Watergate break-in.
“Whitewater is a very serious matter. Some questions raised by Whitewater go to the very heart of our democratic system of government,” D’Amato said on the Senate floor before the vote. “We must ascertain whether purely private interests have been placed above the public trust.”
The White House responded to establishment of the committee with confidence and a caution that the probe must not divert the White House and Congress from more pressing business.
“We are certain that the facts, presented in fair hearings, will continue to show that the amorphous and ever-shifting Whitewater charges are without merit,” said a White House statement released Wednesday.
The White House said the hearings will take place “at a time when the White House and the Congress must work together on a host of pressing issues,” but insisted that they would not be a distraction.
The absence of significant Democratic opposition to the establishment of the committee underscores the Democrats’ awkward political position: While few are enthusiastic about the prospect of a new round of hearings presided over by the incendiary D’Amato, they cannot be seen as blocking a further look into a matter now under the scrutiny of an independent counsel.
Whitewater was a failed Arkansas real estate project jointly owned by the Clintons and James McDougal, who also owned Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, an Arkansas thrift that was seized by federal regulators in 1989. Investigators are looking at whether Whitewater caused losses at Madison and whether federally insured deposits from the savings and loan were siphoned off through Whitewater to benefit Clinton’s 1984 gubernatorial campaign.
The Senate special committee, under the terms of its establishment, would have to complete its probe by Feb. 29, 1996. That timetable would bring the investigation several months into the 1996 presidential campaign, but cut it off abruptly well before the race moves into its final stages.
Many Democrats hope that D’Amato’s Whitewater hearings will not only help clear the Clintons of wrongdoing, but will also cast the continuing efforts to investigate the first couple as a waste of taxpayer money motivated by partisan enmity.
Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., a close ally of the Clintons, stressed that in addition to learning about Whitewater, the public has the right to know how costly the Whitewater probes have become and how willingly the Clintons have cooperated with the probes.
“The public also has the right to know that this White House, this president, this first lady, this administration has never at one time been accused of a lack of cooperation,” Pryor said.
The resolution approved Wednesday would provide funding of $950,000 to the committee to probe the Whitewater affair, including for the first time, Clinton’s finances for his 1990 campaign for governor of Arkansas. That is currently the focus of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s separate investigation.