Negotiations between the White House and a House subcommittee broke down yesterday after the administration said it would not provide complete access to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign files unless the panel also agreed to a full-scale inspection of President Carter's campaign records.
Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.), the panel chairman, called the offer "unacceptable" and said he may seek a meeting with the president--or a subpoena--unless the administration changes its mind by Tuesday.
Albosta said the administration had refused to modify its most recent offer, which would give the panel access only to documents deemed relevant by FBI agents who are inspecting the Reagan campaign files stored at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Congressional Republicans quickly picked up on White House counsel Fred F. Fielding's suggestion that the Carter files be included in any broader inquiry, saying that anything less would amount to reviewing only half the 1980 campaign.
"We are not going to be dictated to by the executive branch," replied Albosta, who appeared frustrated after a week of fruitless negotiations. He said that while the subcommittee has looked at some Carter documents, there are no allegations of wrongdoing in the Carter campaign that would warrant a broader inquiry. The increasingly bitter dispute suggested that the White House is determined to keep investigators for the Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee from rummaging through Reagan's raw campaign records.
Administration officials have acknowledged privately that they are worried that this could lead to disclosure of politically embarrassing material unrelated to the probe of how Reagan aides obtained documents and information from the Carter White House.
In the process, however, the White House has triggered an open confrontation with the subcommittee, prompting congressional Democrats to question President Reagan's pledge to cooperate fully with the probe.
Albosta said his latest proposal called for both Democratic and Republican subcommittee staff members to review the Hoover files in conjunction with FBI officials. He said the subcommittee would not review, copy or take notes on any document that does not relate to the unauthorized transfer of government or campaign material.
"The subcommittee, of course, would reserve the right to determine what material is relevant," Albosta said.
An administration official said many of the restrictions were suggested by the White House, but that "the sticking point" remained subjecting the Carter files to similar scrutiny. "If they want to go through all the files, then they're asking to review a whole campaign, and if that's the case let's not just look at one side of it," he said.
This official said Albosta should accept Fielding's offer to take what the FBI provides now and resume negotiations if he remains unsatisfied. "When you see the offer that's sitting out there for them, I'd question whether a subpoena would give them a better deal," he said.
Albosta, who called an emergency subcommittee meeting yesterday, said that "a subpoena is not out of the question." But he cannot subpoena the Reagan files without the approval of Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), the full committee chairman.
"The president made a big show of saying he expected everyone to cooperate," Ford said. "Despite my personal feelings, I'm obliged to take the president at his word . . . . Until I see clear evidence that the president didn't mean it when he said he'd cooperate, I'm not issuing any subpoenas." Ford said he agreed that the White House position was unacceptable but that a lengthy battle over subpoenas would hamper the investigation.
Fielding, in a letter to Albosta's special counsel, James Hamilton, said the two sides had reached "an impasse." He said he had "offered to provide you complete access to the product of the FBI file search" and that the Hoover trustees--Reagan, White House counselor Edwin Meese III and deputy chief of staff Michael K. Deaver--would "respond favorably" to any specific requests for information.
But Fielding said Albosta is making an "unprecedented" demand to see "files that are beyond the scope of the subcommittee's professed interest."
Fielding said the White House would throw open the Hoover files "only if--in fairness--the subcommitee would agree to conduct such a review of the Carter White House and campaign files . . . . It seems not only fair but logical that the files of the Carter administration be subject to whatever broad review is intended for the Reagan campaign."
Albosta said he found Fielding's offer "unacceptable in light of President Reagan's repeated statements that he wishes to cooperate with all investigators." But he asked Hamilton to meet with Associate Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen today in a further attempt to resolve the dispute.
Subcommittee Republicans, joined by two minority members from the full committee, said they had not been kept informed of the negotiations. They said Albosta should leave the detective work to the FBI and stick to his professed goal of rewriting the Ethics in Government Act.
"I don't think poring through all those Hoover records is a legitimate request," said Rep. Gene Taylor (R-Mo.). "You could pick something out of context out of anyone's files." He added that "it would be ludicrous to completely ignore the Carter campaign files ."
Albosta replied that he has "bent over backward" to include the Republicans and that his investigation is much broader than the FBI's criminal probe. "We don't want to be given something by the FBI . . . that may be only part of the story," he said.
Hamilton said the Fielding plan "puts the committee in the position of relying on the FBI to do its investigation."