WASHINGTON -- As the Senate opened its Whitewater hearings yesterday, the lawmakers tried to tread gently on what they acknowledged was a topic that bordered on the macabre: last year's death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr.
But on the topic of the administration's handling of the Whitewater matter, the members of the Banking Committee came out swinging, launching fresh charges of White House misconduct and deception.
Unlike this week's Whitewater hearings in the House, where the relentless Republican attacks could be chalked up to partisan sniping, several Democratic senators were skeptical about the truthfulness of administration officials and the propriety of some of their actions in handling the Whitewater matter.
"Although it appears no criminal violations have occurred, I am deeply troubled by the conduct of some of the administration aides," said Sen. Richard H. Bryan, D-Nev. "The president has not been well-served by their zeal."
Leading the Republican charge, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York leveled a sharp attack, saying, "The White House has concealed, disguised and distorted the truth, all in the service of politics and the president's self-preservation."
The first day of the Senate's hearings was devoted to an examination of the Foster death, which was found to be an unrelated suicide by Robert B. Fiske Jr., the Whitewater special prosecutor.
Witnesses -- FBI agents, police and medical examiners involved in the Fiske investigation -- testified that they were absolutely certain that Mr. Foster committed suicide.
But as their opening statements made clear, the senators professed to be far more interested in examining the propriety of meetings that took place last winter between White House and Treasury officials.
At issue is whether it was proper for Treasury officials to brief White House aides last fall and winter about the status of an investigation into a failed Arkansas savings and loan, Madison Guaranty, by the Resolution Trust Corp., an independent agency that Treasury oversees.
At the time, the RTC was sending to the Justice Department a recommendation that it conduct a criminal investigation of Madison, whose owner, James McDougal, was the Clintons' business partner in the Whitewater land deal.
The Clintons were mentioned, not as targets of a probe, but as possible beneficiaries of alleged wrongdoing at Madison.
Such referrals are generally confidential and are not disclosed to those named as potential targets or even as potential witnesses, as the Clintons were.
While not always defending the White House as staunchly as their House counterparts, several Democrats portrayed the administration's actions as, at worst, a case of "bad judgment."
"If bad judgment is a crime, I venture to say some U.S. senators would be in jail," said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, D-Colo.
But Democrats such as Mr. Bryan and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama expressed concern about possible ethical breaches.
"I'm deeply disturbed with evidence that important and necessary policy decisions at the RTC may have been directed by purely personal political damage-control considerations," Mr. Shelby said.
And those on both sides of the aisle focused on the previous testimony of Roger C. Altman, deputy Treasury secretary and, until February, acting RTC chief.
In his prior testimony in February, Mr. Altman sought to play down the importance of the contacts between Treasury and White House officials. He later amended some of his responses in letters to the committee.
"If we do nothing else, it is vitally important we are absolutely certain that when people testify before us they tell us the truth," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said: "This committee has the right to expect that the testimony from witnesses is truthful and complete. . . . For witnesses to shade the truth or give incomplete answers based on tortured interpretations of our questions is unacceptable."
The House Banking Committee voted to exclude from its hearings the topic of Mr. Foster's death, noting that his family had recently requested an end to the scrutiny.