March 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Senate Gop Agrees To Expand Donations Probe Inquiry Will Now Include Actions Deemed ‘Improper,’ Not Just Illegal

Los Angeles Times

Faced with a defection by key members of their own party, Senate Republicans agreed Tuesday to expand the chamber’s investigation of campaign fund-raising abuses to encompass “improper” actions as well as actual violations of the law.

The GOP revolt, led by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the investigating committee, prompted Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to back down on an earlier proposal restricting the inquiry to illegal activity in the 1996 congressional or presidential campaigns.

Surprised Democrats hailed Lott’s sudden retreat as a victory that would allow for a wide-ranging review of both parties’ fundraising practices, including methods that may be technically legal but raise ethical concerns.

For instance, the decision will allow the panel to look into so-called “soft-money” contributions - the largely unregulated flow of money to the Democratic and Republican national committees that is not supposed to directly benefit a candidate. Such donations, frequently involving large sums, have been at the center of much of the current controversy.

“We are very pleased with the result,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “In my tenure as leader, this is one of the biggest turnabouts I’ve experienced.”

But Republicans suggested that the new language - approved by the full Senate 99-0 - also would free them to scrutinize the many White House activities that have raised questions but not necessarily broken the law.

“Some of those coffees and White House sleepovers may be improper,” Lott said, referring to examples of the access that the Clinton administration frequently accorded large contributors to the Democratic Party.

The dispute over process underscored the high stakes for both parties once the Governmental Affairs Committee begins calling witnesses before the television cameras in the coming months.

Democrats fear the inquiry could turn into a partisan witchhunt aimed at embarrassing their party and president. They point out that only two of the more than 50 subpoenas the committee already has sent out focus on GOP targets.

Republicans clearly see an opportunity to help their party by exposing aspects of the Clinton fund-raising effort during the last campaign. But the broader the committee’s investigation, the more likely it will delve into questionable fund-raising practices by the GOP.

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