Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., on Tuesday quietly asked Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to seek an open-ended extension beyond the end of the year for the committee’s campaign finance investigation.
Lott, widely reported to be dissatisfied with Thompson’s handling of the probe and its results to date, made no immediate comment on the request, transmitted to him in a letter from Thompson. Lott told reporters he wanted to speak with committee members before he decides how to respond. Lott’s office said it did not plan to release the letter.
From interviews with several committee senators, it was clear that Thompson had made only informal efforts to seek consensus among his colleagues, many of whom did not learn of the letter until after it was sent. Thompson did not respond to interview requests.
Democrats have made clear they will not support an extension. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., asked his opinion earlier this week, said, “It’s a flat no.” Republicans are more ambivalent, but even influential committee members said they believe the investigation should shut down when its current mandate expires Dec. 31.
“I could give you either argument,” said Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla. “My guess is we won’t extend it. Unless we’re uncovering major new material, what’s left to be done?”
Last weekend on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Thompson acknowledged an extension “would be very difficult to get through the United States Senate. … My own sense is that the votes would not be there.”
The Senate on Jan. 30 granted the committee $4.4 million to investigate finance abuses during the 1996 campaign and, under pressure from Democrats, agreed to a Dec. 31 cutoff.
Committee sources said Thompson’s letter to Lott asked for an indefinite extension, but no increase in funding. They said the panel still has more than $2 million of the original appropriation.
Under Thompson, the committee’s hearings have focused on fund-raising scandals surrounding the Clinton administration, but also have covered some Republican misdeeds and explored various campaign finance reform proposals.
From the beginning, senators complained that the deadline gave subpoenaed organizations and witnesses a reason to delay producing documents or giving depositions.
“I’ve never seen an investigation with a time limit,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a committee member who favors an extension. “People made a calculation with the time limit that they would be able to ignore the subpoenas.”
Committee sources said about 30 organizations - from the AFL-CIO, a major contributor to Democrats, to the conservative Christian Coalition - have either complied grudgingly with subpoenas or not at all. The sources said 10 to 15 individuals have refused to answer questions during depositions or refused to be deposed.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the lone committee Democrat supporting the extension, said these insults couldn’t be ignored. “We should take them to court,” he said. “You shouldn’t be able to casually ignore a Senate subpoena.”
Thompson’s request left Lott to decide whether to seek the extension in a Senate floor vote.