WASHINGTON -- The Whitewater special prosecutor paved the way yesterday for congressional hearings into the matter within a few months when he told lawmakers that he would have "no objection" to a limited inquiry.
The agreement by special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr., made in meetings here with congressional leaders, was immediately seized upon by Republicans as a sign that there would be a public airing of questions raised about the complicated relationship between President and Mrs. Clinton and a failed savings and loan association in Arkansas.
Mr. Fiske told the lawmakers that his investigation is proceeding on several tracks and that he could be finished examining Washington-based events within the next few weeks. Mr. Fiske said that if Congress were to hold hearings on that portion of the inquiry after he is finished, he would have "no objections."
Ten administration officials, including six top Clinton aides, have been ordered to answer questions today for a federal grand jury looking into contacts between the White House and independent federal agencies probing the collapse of Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan. Some of the subpoenaed officials have postponed their appearances, including senior White House adviser Bruce Lindsey, officials said.
After a day of meetings on Capitol Hill between Mr. Fiske and lawmakers of both parties, Republican Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine predicted that it "is not going to be politically possible" for Mr. Clinton's Democratic allies to block congressional hearings into the matter.
Maryland Republican Party officials in Annapolis demanded yesterday that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes press for congressional hearings "just as he did with Iran-contra and the October surprise."
Speaking before the Maryland GOP issued its demand, Mr. Sarbanes, the ranking Democrat on the House Banking Committee, said that Congress should honor the request of the Whitewater special prosecutor, who has warned that congressional hearings could jeopardize his own investigation.
There was no sign of a break in the ranks of Democratic leaders, who continued to maintain that any effort to hold hearings before Mr. Fiske completes his job would endanger the entire investigation.
"This is partisan politics at its worst," Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine said of the GOP calls for hearings. "Their sole purpose is to embarrass the president and score political points."
However, one leading Democratic senator said that it was time for Hillary Rodham Clinton to begin answering questions about her involvement in the affair.
"I think that she needs to be part of this openness," said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. "I think she should make herself available for questioning in the same way that the president did yesterday."
Mrs. Clinton's office reiterated yesterday that she has no plans to conduct a news conference.
Mr. Fiske told congressional leaders he would "prefer that there be no congressional hearings" until his investigation of the Whitewater real estate venture, the failed Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan, and the suicide of White House lawyer Vincent W. Foster Jr. is completed.
Although Republican lawmakers promised Mr. Fiske that they would not grant any congressional witnesses immunity from federal prosecution, the prosecutor said that he fears a parallel inquiry by Congress could undermine his ability to get all the information he needs.
Mr. Fiske acknowledged that Congress has the right to look into issues related to the performance of federal agencies, which includes allegations that White House aides had improper contact with Treasury Department officials in connection with the Whitewater probe.
House and Senate Republican leaders were more than willing to put off their demand for immediate hearings in hopes of delving into the so-called "cover-up" issues later this spring.
"We're not planning to rush pell-mell into this as some have said," said Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican who has been among the loudest voices calling for a congressional inquiry.
But Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who has led the call for a congressional inquiry, has not given up on his option, under House rules, to hold a one-day Whitewater hearing before the House Banking Committee later this month.
Mr. Leach refused Mr. Fiske's invitation to meet with him yesterday, calling it "inappropriate."
"I don't want to compromise what he's doing, and I don't want him to compromise what I'm doing," Mr. Leach said.
The prosecutor objects to Mr. Leach's plan to call 40 Whitewater witnesses, including numerous White House officials, saying it could severely endanger his own probe.
"I don't understand his objection," Mr. Leach responded. "We've given him our list of witnesses, and he has two weeks to bring them first before the grand jury if he wants to."