By Helen Dewar
Lott drew criticism over the weekend from House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and some other GOP leaders for saying Friday during taping of a television interview that it is time for Starr to "show his cards" and that Congress might consider censuring Clinton if there is not enough evidence for impeachment.
But by yesterday Lott and his GOP critics were back in step, with Lott praising Starr for "doing a great job under very difficult circumstances" and urging Clinton to stop "stonewalling" and tell "the whole truth" about allegations that he had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and lied about it.
"So while I encourage Mr. Starr to continue his work and try to complete that work, I today call on the president to come forward, tell the American people what has happened," he said. "What is the truth? What is the whole truth? Tell that to the independent counsel, call off his attack dogs, get this behind us so that we can go on with the people's business."
Lott did not back off his earlier comments, saying only that they had been "distorted" and overblown by the news media and the president's allies. At one point, however, he also seemed to concede he might have said too much.
"When you start being quoted by the White House, [former White House chief of staff] Leon Panetta and Senator [Robert] Torricelli [D-N.J.], you know that you've either been misinterpreted or you said something you shouldn't have," Lott said.
During a telephone conversation over the weekend, Gingrich asked him "something to the effect, 'What was your thinking with regard to your Starr remarks?' " Lott recalled. "I thought that was very diplomatic on his part."
As Lott opened his news conference yesterday, aides passed out copies of the transcript from his Friday interview on CNN, during which Lott criticized Clinton but also said of Starr: "I think that he has had enough time, and it's time to show his cards." If Starr has "got something, go forward with it." If not, "close it out."
But yesterday Lott put it differently. "He can't complete his work if the White House won't cooperate with him, and they've continued to stonewall and attack even to the point of using my words to try to, you know, denigrate Ken Starr, which I don't think is fair and that was not my intent."
Lott also said the controversy was "beginning to have an impact" on Clinton's ability to govern, suggesting it was affecting issues ranging "from Social Security to what's going on in Iraq to now what's going on in Kosovo."
He said he came to that conclusion because the administration is "taking either small steps on big issues or they're silent on big issues." Asked for examples, Lott said he'd "rather not start going down the list because I don't want to undermine our ability to work together."
But he also said the relationship has already been strained, citing as one example the White House's prompt embrace of his Friday remarks as new ammunition for urging that Starr wind up his investigation. "Just the fact that the White House jumped on my words last week to advance their case certainly doesn't help our relationship," Lott said.
At the White House, press secretary Michael McCurry preferred to stick with Lott's Friday assessment of Starr's pace. "Apparently he [Lott] has had some change of heart," McCurry said. "I imagine that has something to do with what he heard from his colleagues, but we'll take version one as preferable to version two."
McCurry said Lott had no basis for saying that the Lewinsky controversy had been a distraction to public business. "It hasn't distracted the president," McCurry said. "And I'd be surprised if the majority leader admitted that he and the Senate have been distracted by a matter that doesn't concern them."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
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