Congressional Republicans, whose counsel met privately with White House officials earlier this week, moved yesterday to limit a House subcommittee's probe of how Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign obtained documents and information from President Carter's White House.
At the White House, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes called any suggestion that the administration is trying to influence the House probe "an absolute lie."
He said that White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, chief congressional lobbyist Kenneth M. Duberstein and presidential assistant Richard G. Darman had held "a get-acquainted meeting" Tuesday with Steve Hemphill, Republican counsel for the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.
"We're not trying to orchestrate anything in that committee," Speakes said of the human resources subcommittee, noting that the Democrats have a 4-to-2 majority. "It would be extremely difficult to do so . . . . There is no effort on the part of this White House to contain the investigation. Period. The direction of the president is to be cooperative with the Justice Department, the FBI and the Albosta committee."
While subcommittee Chairman Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.) tried to fend off the Republican counterattack yesterday, he also had to deal with skepticism from House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who said he believes that the inquiry is detracting from more important Democratic issues.
O'Neill said he told Albosta Wednesday night that any full-fledged probe should be handled by the House Judiciary Committee, not by Albosta's subcommittee.
"He doesn't have investigatory rights," O'Neill said. "I told him, 'Don't overstep your bounds.' "
O'Neill said he would not try to block the inquiry unless Albosta did "something rash that I didn't agree with."
The speaker noted that any effort to subpoena Reagan campaign documents must be approved by Post Office and Civil Service Committee Chairman William D. Ford (D-Mich.). Ford said he would approve a subpoena only if it becomes necessary to get information.
"Don's a solid, straightforward Michigan farmer and he's not going to get pushed around by anyone," Ford added.
GOP counsel Hemphill said he and White House officials "discussed the methods by which the White House can cooperate" with the subcommittee probe and how the need for a subpoena might be avoided.
He said they did not discuss Republican efforts to limit the probe or require greater consultation with the minority side, but focused on the panel's dispute with the White House over access to Reagan campaign documents stored at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
The subpoena question soon may become moot, sources said, because Albosta and the White House have moved closer to an agreement on access to the Hoover files.
At yesterday's subcommittee hearing, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.) persuaded the panel to amend its formal investigative guidelines to give Republicans a larger role in the probe.
Gilman, whose staff had notified the White House Monday that he would be attacking the probe as a fishing expedition, also pushed through language requiring the panel to look into wrongdoing by both the Reagan and Carter campaigns.
"I don't think we have to find a guilty culprit to reform legislation," he said. "We don't need an extensive, far-reaching investigation . . . ."
Gilman said the panel had no need to examine the Hoover files to amend the federal ethics laws because it could "assume the worst--that someone from the White House in the Carter administration turned over material" to Reagan's campaign.
But Albosta said the probe is needed and that Congress would not have adopted many current ethics laws if it had not investigated the Watergate scandals.
"We have to know where the law broke down," Albosta said. "I don't know where the chips are going to fall and I could care less . . . .
"The questions are whether there are adequate provisions in the regulations to prevent the misuses of presidential or federal government property or information, whether these provisions are understood and whether they are enforced or enforceable at all."
Albosta said he would not call public hearings in the near future. "This will not be a sideshow," he said. "People will not be called before this committee for allegations without any facts."
At Gilman's urging, the panel adopted language that said "the object of this investigation is to define legislative needs . . . to reform the Ethics in Government Act based upon allegations and possible ethical violations in both presidential campaigns in 1980."
The Democrats, in a series of amendments, also promised to brief minority staff members before taking major action and to include them in interviews of former Carter and Reagan campaign officials.
The partisan feuding came against the backdrop of a concerted public relations campaign by the White House to demonstrate that President Reagan is determined get to the bottom of the controversy.
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), whose aides have discussed the probe with Hemphill, said yesterday that continuing the House probe could expose Democratic "skeletons in the closet."
"Frankly, they may blow it by having built up such a bogeyman here that turns out to be a bust," Michel said.
In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) asked the Judiciary Committee to create a special subcommittee to investigate the 1980 campaign. "I do not believe the republic or either party is well served by the use of purloined documents, some of them possibly classified, or espionage systems trying to infiltrate the White House," he said.
Several Democratic senators supported DeConcini's effort, but a spokesman for committee Chairman Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) said Thurmond considers the idea "premature" until the FBI finishes its criminal investigation.