WASHINGTON -- As the Senate Whitewater committee begins a second week of hearings today, the spotlight is likely to shift to someone who is not expected to be called as a witness and whose name, so far, has gone largely unspoken by the panel: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The committee is trying to determine whether the White House tried to protect the first family by interfering with an examination of the office of deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. after his July 1993 suicide. At issue is whether White House officials were trying to hide something, perhaps records related to the failed Whitewater land deal.
A White House lawyer has told Senate investigators that he was told, two days after Mr. Foster's body was found, that Mrs. Clinton wanted to prevent police and Justice Department officials from reviewing files in Mr. Foster's office.
Yesterday, the White House denied that the first lady had expressed any desire to keep officials from seeing Mr. Foster's documents.
But clearly interested in pursuing this approach, the Senate committee has rearranged its witness schedule for this week to bring those close to Mrs. Clinton, such as her chief of staff, Margaret Williams, to the hearing as soon as possible. Ms. Williams, one of three White House officials who were in Mr. Foster's office the night of his death, is scheduled to testify tomorrow.
Among the items in Mr. Foster's office that were not turned over to police was a file on Whitewater, the failed Arkansas land deal in which President and Mrs. Clinton had invested and that is at the center of the controversy.
Months before his death, Mr. Foster, who had been a law partner with Mrs. Clinton at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Ark., had handled the sale of the Clintons' interest in Whitewater as well as their 1992 tax returns.
Steven Neuwirth, a White House lawyer, related to the Senate committee that White House counsel Bernard W. Nussbaum told him after Mr. Foster's death that he had discussed the search of the Foster office with Susan Thomases, a confidante of Mrs. Clinton, the Washington Post reported Sunday.
According to the Post, Mr. Neuwirth said that Mr. Nussbaum told him that, in his conversation with Ms. Thomases, she relayed to him Mrs. Clinton's wish to limit the search of the office.
In dismissing that account, White House associate counsel Mark D. Fabiani said that neither Mr. Nussbaum nor Ms. Thomases, in depositions taken by the committee, recalled Mrs. Clinton weighing in on the matter of how the search would be conducted.
"The first-hand accounts contained in the Nussbaum and Thomases depositions don't back up Neuwirth's third-hand impression," Mr. Fabiani said yesterday.
An administration official familiar with the Neuwirth testimony said yesterday that Mr. Neuwirth had told the Senate committee that he had a "vague recollection" of Mrs. Clinton's interest in the matter from a conversation he had with Mr. Nussbaum.
"He can't remember the precise words or the precise time," said the source, "but he had an impression that Nussbaum felt Susan Thomases and the first lady had concerns about unimpeded access to a lawyer's office."
U.S. Park Police officers testified during last week's hearings that the White House was uncooperative when officers tried to search Mr. Foster's office for a note or other items that might help explain the apparent suicide. And former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell said he was told that Mr. Nussbaum reneged on an agreement that would have allowed Justice Department investigators to search the office.
The police and Justice officials, barred by Mr. Nussbaum from searching the office for themselves, stood around the periphery of the office while Mr. Nussbaum sorted through Mr. Foster's files and possessions.
The New York Times reported last week that, two days after Mr. Foster's death, Deputy Attorney General Philip B. Heymann told Mr. Nussbaum that he was "messing this up very badly" and "making a terrible mistake" by forbidding Justice Department lawyers to look at documents in Mr. Foster's office.
Mr. Nussbaum replied that he had to "talk to some people about this," according to the handwritten notes of a special assistant to Heymann. After delaying the search for 2 1/2 hours, he then told Mr. Heymann, "We'll do it my way." The notes do not reveal with whom Mr. Nussbaum conferred, if anyone.
Democrats on the committee have portrayed Mr. Nussbaum's actions as a reflection of his aggressive "New York litigator" style, and have said he was merely concerned about the privacy of documents in Mr. Foster's office that were protected by executive privilege.
But Republicans have suggested that the White House counsel was trying to conceal something in Mr. Foster's office that would have embarrassed the Clintons.
Along with Ms. Williams and her former assistant, Evelyn S. Lieberman, the committee is scheduled to hear testimony this week from Henry P. O'Neill, a Secret Service agent who has told investigators that he saw Ms. Williams leave Mr. Foster's office -- on the night of his death with papers in her hands. Ms. Williams has denied this, and, according to the White House, passed a lie detector test last fall.
Today, the committee hears from several administration officials including Patsy L. Thomasson, a deputy assistant to the president who was also among those in Mr. Foster's office hours after his death.
At one point, Republican aides on the committee considered calling Mrs. Clinton as a witness. But they decided against it, and New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, the Republican chairman of the committee, has said he would accord the first lady respect in dealing with her role.
In fact, Republicans are expected to tread lightly when questioning officials about Mrs. Clinton.
Although she has not been questioned by the Senate committee, Mrs. Clinton spent two hours over the weekend answering questions under oath from the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr. Mr. Clinton was questioned for 3 1/2 hours.
The session Saturday was the second time in three months that the Clintons were interviewed by the independent counsel.