By Edward Walsh
The stated purpose of yesterday's session was Burton's plan -- rebuffed by Democrats on a straight party-line vote -- to grant immunity from prosecution to four relatively minor potential witnesses. But it also gave Democrats an opportunity to sound off on the latest Burton controversy: his comments to the Indianapolis Star last week that Clinton is a "scumbag" and "that's why I'm after him."
Burton did not back away yesterday. "Perhaps I could have used different and more diplomatic language to describe how I feel, but the fact is I do not believe that the president is a man of integrity," Burton said. "And I believe any objective person who follows the facts would agree with me."
The largely rhetorical threat to seek disciplinary action against Burton was made by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat. Calling Burton's description of Clinton "vile," Waxman said the House should consider censuring him or removing him as chairman -- although there is little chance of that happening in the GOP-controlled House.
But Waxman scored a victory yesterday in rebuffing Burton's plan to grant the four campaign fund-raising witnesses immunity.
In response, Republican sources said GOP leaders plan to shift any aspect of the investigation requiring grants of immunity to witnesses to the House Oversight Committee, where Republicans have the two-thirds majority to prevail without any Democratic support.
Yesterday's maneuvering and heated rhetoric underscored the disarray that has marked the public aspect of the House investigation almost from the beginning of its inquiry into campaign fund-raising improprieties. With many of its key potential witnesses having fled the country or invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the panel has held relatively few public hearings and uncovered little that was not learned during last year's Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation.
"It does not matter what we do here anymore," said Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.) "This committee is defunct. We're going nowhere."
The Democratic attack on Burton also included Waxman's complaint about the chairman's "reprehensible" decision to make public portions of tape-recorded telephone conversations of former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell while he was in federal prison. The committee subpoenaed the tape recordings last year from the Justice Department.
"It would be unforgivable for us to sit by while you use power in an arbitrary, coercive, abusive and cruel way to punish your enemies and those you and your staff dislike," Waxman told Burton. "It would be unforgivable of us to sit by when you bring discredit to this committee and to the House by calling the president a 'scumbag' and admitting you're out to get him."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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