By George Lardner Jr.
Not content with Wednesday's forced resignation of Burton's chief investigator, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he was preparing to offer a privileged resolution on the House floor demanding that Burton step aside "because he has clearly disqualified himself."
But Burton, under pressure after his release of selectively edited transcripts of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell's prison conversations, said that he intends to press on with his investigation of the flow of illegal foreign money into Democratic coffers.
"Weeks like this don't weaken us," Burton said through a spokesman. "They strengthen our resolve. It's clear that there are those in Washington that can't take the heat."
Some House Republicans have voiced their chagrin over Burton's latest predicament, coming in the wake of his labeling President Clinton "a scumbag," and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told a GOP Conference meeting Wednesday that he was "embarrassed" for the chairman. While Republicans are not likely to line up with the Democrats in any floor vote to oust Burton, Gingrich has been consulting privately with Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, about taking over part of the campaign finance investigation.
Gephardt said at a news conference that he would not offer his resolution until after Burton's House Government Reform and Oversight Committee meets next Wednesday. He said that the panel's ranking minority member, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), asked him to hold off "to see if there was going to be some improvement in the way the committee has operated."
Waxman said he would seek a change in the committee rules, adopted last year over Democratic protests, that give the chairman "extraordinary power" to issue subpoenas and release information unilaterally. For contested releases of records, such as the Hubbell tapes, the rules set up a five-member working group to give the chairman "non-binding" advice. But when Waxman called for a meeting of the panel to discuss the Hubbell tapes, Burton instead said it was not necessary because the three-member Republican majority agreed the records "should be made publicly available."
Although chief GOP investigator David Bossie, who was in charge of editing and transcribing the tapes, resigned Wednesday at the behest of Gingrich, Gephardt said that wasn't good enough.
"The staff member did not say he was out to get the president," Gephardt said, alluding to a recent Burton remark. "The staff member didn't release the edited [Hubbell] tapes. The staff member didn't decide to issue over 500 subpoenas without a vote of the committee."
In an interview with Brit Hume on Fox News yesterday, Bossie said he quit in an effort to stem the criticism being lodged by Democrats over the panel's actions.
"I told the chairman I was tired of being a punching bag for the White House, that I was upset that it had changed the debate from the content of the tapes to us, and I offered him my resignation," he said.
For Burton, next Wednesday's meeting will be a final chance for the panel's Democrats to abandon their obstructionist tactics and approve grants of immunity for four witnesses in the foreign money investigation, a step that the Justice Department has said it does not object to.
A two-thirds majority is required for grants of immunity from prosecution, so Democratic votes are needed. If that effort fails, Burton has said he would defer this stage of the probe to the House Oversight Committee, which has a 2-to-1 GOP majority.
"For those who want to divert attention, maybe they consider me a tempting target," Burton said. "But never forget, I'm not the issue. I'm the questioner. I'm asking what Americans want to know. Did foreign dollars drive decisions in America's White House?"
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company