By George Lardner Jr.
Eighteen Democrats and the lone independent on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee lined up solidly to deny Chairman Dan Burton (Ind.) and the 23 other Republicans the two-thirds majority they needed for immunization.
"The members of this committee should be holding this hearing in a padded cell," said Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.). "We're starting to embarrass the American people."
"I feel like we need a marriage counselor," said Rep. Thomas M. Barrett (D-Wis.). He likened the committee to people "who have lived together for 45 years and discovered they have absolutely nothing in common."
In subdued tones, Burton told reporters that he would recommend that the next stage of the inquiry, focusing on foreign money that poured into Democratic coffers for the 1996 campaign, be turned over to the House Oversight Committee, which has a 2-to-1 GOP majority.
The dispute is likely to erupt again on the House floor today, when Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) plans to offer a resolution stripping Burton of control over the investigation. While the measure has slim prospects of passing, it would force Republicans to go on record as supporting the controversial chairman.
Claiming solid GOP support, Burton said he does not intend to give up any other phase of the inquiry. He said it could continue into next year in pursuit of "unanswered questions" but indicated the best the panel could do for now would be to hold two or three more ancillary hearings and compose "an interim report" to be released sometime this fall.
Democrats, led by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member, accused Burton of abusing his power with autocratic rules and making one bad judgment after another, especially in recent weeks when he labeled President Clinton "a scumbag," said he was "out to get" the president and released selectively edited transcripts of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell's prison conversations.
"There has never been an investigation where the chairman asserted as much power as Chairman Burton has," Waxman declared. "And there never has been an investigation that has been so plagued by mistakes, raw partisanship and wrong judgments."
Republicans hotly accused the Democrats of hypocrisy in claiming that they would have been happy to cooperate in the investigation if only someone else were in charge.
"Machiavelli would be proud of the subversive and conspiratorial tactics" of the Democrats, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) protested as he condemned "the undeserved sliming of the chairman of this committee."
The GOP members pointed out that Democrats also constantly assailed and frustrated the committee's past and highly respected chairman, then-Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), in his investigation of the Clinton White House's travel office firings and wrongful acquisition of hundreds of FBI files on Republicans from the Reagan and Bush administrations.
When Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) charged yesterday that the Burton inquiry had become "a circus and a soap opera," Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) angrily recalled some of Lantos's intemperate remarks. When Craig Livingstone, the White House official in charge of the FBI files fiasco, appeared before the committee in June 1996, Scarborough said, Lantos "suggested to Mr. Livingstone that he should kill himself."
Lantos said this "totally misstated" his remarks. What he actually told Livingstone, a transcript shows, was that "with an infinitely more distinguished public record than yours, [then-Chief of Naval Operations] Admiral [Jeremy] Boorda committed suicide when he may have committed a minor mistake."
Burton deplored the fact that partisanship had come to overshadow "very serious allegations" about the 1996 presidential elections, including reports that the Chinese government "had developed and implemented a plan" to funnel money into the United States "to influence our elections."
He said that one of the witnesses he wanted to immunize, Kent La, the U.S. distributor for Red Pagoda Mountain cigarettes, which are made by a Chinese government-owned company, might be able to shed light on those reports. La is a business associate of another committee target, Ted Sioeng, and together, Burton said, they gave $400,000 to the Democratic Party.
"I understand that by voting to block immunity, you feel like you are punishing me," Burton told the Democrats. "But in reality . . . you are punishing the American people [who] have a right to know if foreign tobacco money corrupted their political system."
But while Burton said the Justice Department had no objections to the grants of immunity, Democrats countered with a letter from Justice expressing fears that La's testimony might leak out, compromising their own investigation, and urging tight restrictions to prevent disclosure of his statements.
"In light of the majority's rather dismal performance in maintaining the confidentiality of documents," Democratic staffers contended in a memo, " . . . there is no reason to believe that a deposition of Kent La . . . would remain confidential."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) told reporters he was disappointed in the Democrats' decision to block immunity and was exploring whether to move the issue to another committee. House Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said he has met with Gingrich about taking over aspects of the probe, but no final decision has been made.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company