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Republicans Balk At Broad Investigation

Sat., Feb. 15, 1997

Concerned that their own campaign practices will come under fire, several Republican senators are complaining about a GOP colleague’s refusal to exclude congressional elections from his investigation of 1996 election fund raising.

Among those raising objections in recent GOP meetings, according to several Senate sources, were the current and two past chairmen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which funnels millions of dollars to Senate campaigns.

“I think there is some nervousness out there on the part of some Republicans,” Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain said in an interview.

Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has fiercely resisted efforts to limit the scope of his Government Operations Committee investigation. Indeed, he has promised Democratic members they will be free to raise questions about Republican fund raising.

The main subject of the hearings will be questionable Democratic fund raising to support President Clinton’s re-election campaign. Thompson assuaged some of the Republican worries Thursday when the first 52 subpoenas issued by the committee were overwhelmingly focused on Democratic practices.

But Thompson also wants authority to review congressional fundraising practices, including the use of big, unregulated “soft money” contributions in House and Senate races and the involvement of tax-exempt organizations in last year’s campaigns. Thompson has requested a $6.5 million budget so that he can hire a giant team of investigators.

Publicly, most of the objections to the budget and broad jurisdiction sought by Thompson have been raised by Democrats.

Behind the scenes, however, several Republicans have complained about Thompson’s refusal to focus solely on presidential fund raising, according to several GOP senators and senior aides.

“Some of our members don’t see the need to be so fair, to look beyond Clinton and the Democrats,” said a GOP leadership aide who discussed the internal Republican debate on condition of anonymity. “Once it gets started, no one can predict how it will play out. … Some of our members believe he is determined to tar a Republican to prove he is being fair.”

Thompson has acknowledged to some colleagues he probably will have to accept a smaller initial budget. But he will not accept a small scope for the hearings, said a Senate colleague who spoke with the Tennessean this week.

Among the most vocal Republicans raising concerns, according to the Senate sources, are the two most recent past chairmen of the National Republican Senatorial Committee - Phil Gramm of Texas and Alfonse D’Amato of New York.

Also, the new chairman - Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - joined others in voicing reservations about Thompson’s investigation at a GOP luncheon this week, the sources said. Gramm declined comment on grounds the luncheon discussion was private; spokesmen for McConnell and D’Amato did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The committee raised $5.5 million in soft money under Gramm in the 1994 election cycle, and nearly five times that - $26 million - in 1995-96 under D’Amato’s leadership. Most of this money was spent on ads boosting GOP candidates.

D’Amato is considered vulnerable next year, and several conservative colleagues raised concerns at Wednesday’s GOP steering committee luncheon that Democrats on Thompson’s committee would try to embarrass the New York senator, the sources said.

Also, the Republican National Committee channeled millions of dollars to tax-exempt conservative groups late in the 1994 and 1996 campaigns for efforts that helped GOP congressional candidates.

McConnell is the GOP’s point man in opposing the leading campaign-finance proposal before Congress.

The bipartisan measure, supported by Thompson, would outlaw soft-money contributions, which go to a party rather than a specific candidate. It is an area in which Republicans enjoy a significant advantage.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has pointedly refused to make campaign finance reform a legislative priority. But several Republicans who oppose McCain-Feingold and other proposed changes have raised concerns in recent meetings that there could be a public groundswell for action if the Senate hearings draw attention to how both parties take advantage of loopholes in federal campaign laws.

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