WASHINGTON -- During last summer's Whitewater hearings before the Senate Banking Committee, Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr., who is retiring after this session of Congress, talked about passing the gavel to Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Democrat next in line to head the prestigious committee.
Not so fast, piped up the ranking Republican member, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, suggesting that if Republicans won control of the Senate in November, he would be the next chairman.
He laughed. Everyone laughed. Back then, even Mr. D'Amato meant it mostly as a joke.
But now, the New York Republican attack dog, who helped keep questions about the Clintons' Arkansas land deal percolating, is poised to head the Senate Banking Committee -- and its investigation into the presidential controversy.
This week's somersault of an election means committee gavels for Republicans, bigger staffs for Republicans, subpoena power for Republicans.
And it means Whitewater hearings -- once more with feeling.
If the Whitewater affair has been a nuisance for President Clinton in the past year, it threatens to be a major, perhaps destructive, force for the remainder of his term, with Republicans now in control of the congressional inquiries and ready to unleash the full power of their oversight duties with zeal.
Probe will skew balance
A protracted, aggressive probe could be disastrous for Mr. Clinton, "if the Republicans try to keep the White House off balance with such legislative investigations and ethics probes, and prevent the White House from recouping its position and putting forth its own agenda," says Benjamin Ginsberg, director of Johns Hopkins' Center for the Study of American Government.
Indeed, Congress' probe, coinciding with a Whitewater investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, is likely to keep Mr. Clinton off balance at the very time he needs to be at the top of his game, as he marches toward a 1996 re-election bid.
The first stage of the Whitewater probe cost the president two top Treasury Department officials and a White House counsel. The next phase could cost him much more.
On the House side, Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, who led the charge for an independent counsel and congressional hearings and has been perhaps the most outspoken and dogged Whitewater critic, is in line to chair the banking committee.
Both he and Mr. D'Amato have promised that there will be hearings -- with or without the approval of Mr. Starr. And both have tried to play down the image of vindictive Republicans loaded for bear.
"This is about full public disclosure and public accountability, not debilitating a presidency," Mr. Leach said this week. "There will be no mean-spiritedness."
Similarly, Mr. D'Amato said the investigation would not turn into a "witch hunt." Although Republicans, as the majority next year, will have enough votes to issue subpoenas, he said the public would not see subpoenas "flying."
"The American people are entitled to know the facts," he said on ABC's "Nightline." "They're entitled to know who was involved and why they were involved, and was there an abuse of power? But this will not be a witch hunt. This will not be an attempt to get anyone."
Mr. D'Amato, who has had his own ethics problems in the past, said that the Democratic leadership "went out of its way to stifle" Congress' investigation of Whitewater this year, and he believes that he and his colleagues will now be free to proceed without roadblocks.
The previous independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., a moderate Republican who was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno, asked Congress to hold hearings only into the parts of the investigation with which he was finished. He said he did not want the legislative inquiries to interfere with his own probe.
The Democratic leadership obliged -- much to Republicans' consternation -- and last summer's hearings in the House and Senate revolved largely around one small part of the controversy: the propriety of Treasury officials' alerting the White House to a Resolution Trust Corp. investigation into a failed Arkansas savings and loan. The Clintons, who were mentioned as possible witnesses in the probe, were partners in the Whitewater land deal with the man who owned the thrift, James McDougal.
The Senate also spent a day examining the circumstances surrounding the death of former deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr., which Mr. Fiske had pronounced a suicide.
Tip of the iceberg
But the heart of the Whitewater controversy is as yet unexplored by Congress. That includes the central question of whether Mr. Clinton used his office as governor of Arkansas to give favorable treatment to an unstable S&L; -- whose eventual failure ended up costing taxpayers millions of dollars -- in return for campaign contributions and personal financial benefit.
Mr. Starr, a conservative Republican who replaced Mr. Fiske in August, has not said whether he will try to limit Congress' inquiries as his predecessor did. A spokeswoman for Mr. Starr, Debbie Gershman, said yesterday that the lawyer hasn't been called by any members of Congress, so he has not yet made any decisions.
Mr. Leach's press secretary, Joe Pinder, said that, although the scope of the House hearings has yet to be determined, the Republican leadership does not believe its hearings would interfere with the independent counsel's work.
"It's always been our impression that Congress can do its job and the independent counsel can do his job, and they can go on simultaneously and on parallel tracks if both pay attention," said Mr. Pinder.
He said that the Democrats used as an "excuse" for limiting the hearings the example of the Iran-contra hearings, where convictions were overturned because witnesses had been granted immunity for their congressional testimony.
"That was the Democrats' fault," said Mr. Pinder. "There's no way we would even think about granting immunity."
With Republicans setting the ground rules, they may even decide to expand the scope of the investigation and examine such areas as Hillary Rodham Clinton's finances -- most notably her huge earnings in the commodities market in the late 1970s -- which had been off-limits to them.
And Republicans are now likely to receive numerous documents -- "hundreds of boxes," said Mr. Pinder -- that have been withheld from them by the Resolution Trust Corp. and the Office of Thrift Supervision.
The release of the documents required something that they hadn't been able to secure but that, come January, won't be any problem: the signature of a committee chairman.