By John Schwartz
Two congressional Democrats yesterday escalated their attempts to have Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) relinquish the chairmanship of the House committee investigating 1996 campaign fund-raising by calling for a replacement who is impartial and does not engage in name-calling.
"Dan Burton has disqualified himself to be the chairman of this committee," House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "If he simply continues what he's been doing, we have no choice but to ask him to step down and even go to the floor of the House and ask the House to vote on this proposition."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee that Burton heads, sounded a similar note in a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) yesterday. "For the investigation to have any legitimacy, this must happen," Waxman wrote and reiterated on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Burton, Waxman said, was granted extraordinary powers to issue subpoenas without a vote of the committee, to release information on his own initiative and to bring subjects in for depositions without granting equal access to the Democrats. "He's abused this extraordinary power, violated people's basic privacy rights, and I think basic decency in the way people ought to be treated," Waxman said. "What we need to do, if we're going to continue this investigation, is get another chairman."
Gephardt, citing Burton's "harsh" statements about President Clinton, said the investigation should be handed over to "someone like Henry Hyde [R-Ill.], who I think is bipartisan and would be fair and impartial." Hyde chairs the House Judiciary Committee.
Burton countered that his job is quite secure.
Burton has called Clinton a "scumbag" and on Wednesday was scolded by Gingrich for releasing an edited transcript of prison phone calls involving former associate attorney general Webster L. Hubbell that contained errors and omitted a conversation that implied that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was unaware of any billing irregularities at the Little Rock law firm where she and Hubbell had worked.
Gingrich "has indicated no change whatsoever," Burton said on "Fox News Sunday." "In fact, last week when I talked to him personally, he indicated full support for our committee and our investigation."
As for the extent of his authority, Burton said, "I don't have unique powers, and we've abided by the rules and the protocol of our committee. There's no need to change, and I don't intend to change."
Burton said, however, that a shift to another committee might be possible if Democrats continue to block his efforts to grant immunity to some witnesses. "If we cannot get the Democrats to vote for immunity, even though the Justice Department said it's okay, if they continue to try to keep people from talking to keep the truth from the American people then we're going to have another committee that has a two-thirds majority to be able to take over that end."
Gingrich told a Republican Conference meeting Wednesday that he was "embarrassed" for Burton, who refused to say he was embarrassed himself about the tapes controversy, which Gingrich said diverted attention from what he called "the crimes that are being committed at the White House."
Gephardt yesterday attacked Gingrich, who, as speaker, would run any impeachment inquiry, for the "crimes" comment. "By reaching conclusions about the guilt of the president now, before we have one fact before the Congress, really disqualifies him in order to carry on this investigation," Gephardt said. He compared it to a judge saying to a defendant, "'Hey, you're guilty. Now let's hear the facts of the case.'"
Burton's former chief investigator, David Bossie, who stepped down in the wake of the Hubbell tapes incident, said on ABC's "This Week" and CNN's "Late Edition" that he erred in not originally releasing all the tapes. He resigned, he said, to remove the object of the White House "deflectionary" tactics and to "put the focus back onto the tapes."
Democrats questioned the nearly simultaneous new indictment of Hubbell, his wife and two others on tax evasion and fraud charges with the initial release of the tapes, but Bossie denied allegations that his staff colluded with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. Bossie said, however, that it was legal for him to give information from the tapes to Starr.
Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called the tapes episode "the most serious abuse of power I've seen in a long time" and compared it to McCarthy era tactics.
The Republican Party, Romer declared, has become "the party of investigators."
Asked whether the president would testify under oath if asked to by Starr, Gephardt told NBC, "I would think he would."
Former White House counsel Jack Quinn was asked if Clinton might invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. "I don't think he would or should ever invoke the Fifth Amendment," Quinn said on CBS, noting that the independent counsel cannot compel presidential testimony or indict a president who has not been impeached by Congress.
John W. Dean III, White House counsel during the Nixon administration, argued on CBS that there are "great differences" between Clinton's situation and Nixon's. "I have seen nothing in even the most serious of the allegations that bring what's going on now up to the level of what was being hidden during Watergate," which Dean characterized as "a pattern and practice of behavior, of criminal behavior, that was being covered up."
Dean said Starr's investigation of Clinton "is a highly charged and much more partisan investigation, with an investigator with far more powers than anything Richard Nixon was ever confronted with."
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