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'Eagerness and Defensiveness on Both Sides'

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 1997; Page A08

It was another day of rhetorical rock-throwing in the Senate's campaign finance hearings yesterday, but one member was not participating. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) wanted information, and once again he had found the nugget in the partisan dross.

It was odd, he said, that John Huang, the former Commerce Department official at the center of the investigation, had a habit of ducking across Pennsylvania Avenue during lunch hour to use phones at the Washington offices of a Little Rock brokerage house.

Republicans suggested Huang was passing sensitive information to foreigners or conducting illegal politicking. Democrats suggested he was just going to neutral ground to conduct personal business.

"I can't conclude anything . . . from what we know about it," Lieberman said, but unless Huang was "one of the few people working in an office in America who does not use the office phone or fax for personal purposes," what he was doing certainly looked "curious."

Once again, the steam emanating from the Governmental Affairs Committee seemed to dissipate thanks to Lieberman's careful neutrality. As the hearings concluded their second week, the second-term centrist from Connecticut has emerged as the committee's frequent voice of reason.

"This is very political – not the normal Governmental Affairs hearing," Lieberman said in an interview. "There are political consequences, and there's a lot of eagerness and defensiveness on both sides."

The eagerness has come from the Republican tendency to "make a little something more" from the evidence than is warranted, Lieberman said, and the defensiveness has come from Democratic "refusal to acknowledge anything useful coming from the other side."

Lieberman's intent, he said, is to "try our best to rise above that." This was what prompted him to ask for an FBI briefing Monday about a supposed Chinese plot to infiltrate U.S. elections.

The China question had provoked a debilitating quarrel between committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), who had outlined a broad conspiracy, and John Glenn (D-Ohio), the panel's ranking minority member, who contended Thompson did not have evidence to support his charge.

Lieberman initially dismissed Thompson's view, but after the FBI presented "other information" Monday, "I understood why Senator Thompson said what he did," and he said so publicly, telling reporters:

"I conclude that there was, in fact, a Chinese government plan to move money into America's congressional elections last year with the clear intent to affect America's policy toward China."

He did not agree that the plot extended to the 1996 presidential election, as Thompson had suggested, but in acknowledging the plot's existence he took China off the partisan burner: "After the meeting, there was a very good mood in the group," Lieberman said.

But perhaps only momentarily. Unseemly partisanship has plagued the committee all year, and Lieberman, 55, a thoughtful man who once headed his party's centrist Democratic Leadership Council, often has seemed to be the lone committee Democrat able to communicate with the other side.

Sometimes this has moved the proceedings along. It was Lieberman Tuesday who agreed with Republicans that a $50,000 check to the Democratic Party authorized by Huang denoted "a clear trail of foreign money coming into U.S. elections." Other Democrats grudgingly agreed.

But it also can make him the Democrats' odd man out. During a contentious hearing June 12, Lieberman refused to cooperate with colleagues trying to force Republicans to issue Democratic subpoenas as the price for granting immunity to more than a dozen potential witnesses.

Lieberman wanted the subpoenas but, if that didn't happen, he said, "I, for one, am prepared to vote for grants of immunity in particular cases." And he did so.

Finally, however, Lieberman may be the reason for the committee's willingness to examine the entire campaign finance system – the Democrats' main goal since the investigation began.

It was Lieberman in March who told Thompson he planned to introduce legislation broadening the committee's investigation and, when Thompson and other Republicans voiced support, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) went along.

The "Lott Amendment" passed 99 to 0 – proof, Lieberman said, that "you can get a lot done around here, if you're not worried about getting the credit."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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