Whitewater committee rejects compromise White House offers to provide meeting notes, with conditions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Unwilling to avert a constitutional showdown, a Senate committee rejected a conditional offer by the White House yesterday to provide notes of a Whitewater meeting.

On a straight party-line vote of 10-8, the Senate Whitewater Committee decided to enforce its subpoena, which demands that notes made by a former White House lawyer be handed over by 9 a.m. today, without any conditions.

If it isn't resolved, the committee will ask the full Senate to challenge the administration in federal court.

The committee chairman, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, said the conditions set out by the White House were "absolutely unacceptable."

Before the vote, the New York Republican had urged committee members to reject the White House offer, saying they have a right to the information "with no strings attached."

President Clinton, in an interview with CBS News in Paris, defended his position.

"I don't believe that I should become the first president in history," he said, "to be asked to give up the right of a confidential relationship with his own lawyers without a court at least being given the chance to determine the issue and, if necessary, to fashion some limits."

Other White House officials denounced Mr. D'Amato personally, saying his response showed he is motivated by a desire to wound the president, not to get to the bottom of Whitewater.

"He doesn't want to see these notes," said Mark Fabiani, a White House attorney. "When he sees them, he'll see that they're innocuous. He wants a dispute over the notes."

The notes concern a two-hour meeting on Nov. 5, 1993, between White House lawyers and Mr. Clinton's private attorneys. The subject was the division of responsibility for Whitewater between the public and private lawyers.

Republican senators want to know whether confidential information about possible criminal investigations relating to the Whitewater land deal were passed along from White House lawyers to Mr. Clinton's private attorneys, led by David E. Kendall.

Republican investigators are particularly interested in notes taken by William H. Kennedy, a White House lawyer who has since left the government, and a chronology of the meeting prepared by Mr. Kendall.

On Wednesday, the White House counsel's office said it was asserting attorney-client privilege and would not honor the Senate committee's subpoena.

Legal scholars were divided over this. In the past, presidents have cited "executive privilege" in such tussles with Congress.

Mr. D'Amato accused the White House of "stonewalling," and even the president's own advisers conceded privately that their stance might make it appear that they had something to hide.

So yesterday, the White House abruptly altered course. In a letter faxed to the staff counsel of the Whitewater committee, White House attorney Jane C. Sherburne said the administration would furnish the sought-after notes provided the committee met several conditions:

* That the committee agree to the White House claim that the meeting was privileged -- and privilege was not being waived by the furnishing of the documents.

* That the committee not question officials who did not attend the meeting.

* That the committee "would secure" an agreement to abide by these terms with the special counsel investigating Whitewater.

In insisting that the meeting be recognized as privileged, the White House sought to preserve the right to keep other Whitewater conversations confidential.

Mr. D'Amato dismissed these conditions 10 minutes after he saw them. In the debate that followed, Republicans drew parallels between Mr. Clinton's claim of attorney-client privilege and President Richard M. Nixon's attempts to withhold documents during the Watergate scandal by citing executive privilege.

"We all know that claim was bogus and they were hiding something then, as perhaps they are now," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican.

Democrats on the committee bristled at such comparisons. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland called the Republican push for the documents, after the White House had offered a compromise, a "purely political exercise" intended to "provoke a confrontation."

White House aides maintained that the committee's actions were part of a drive to embarrass a Democratic president whose popularity is rising.

Although Mr. Clinton's approval rating has climbed above 50 percent in recent polls -- and up to 60 percent in a couple of surveys -- his advisers worry that public doubts about the president are percolating below the surface and remain a threat to his re-election.

Whitewater comes up in focus groups conducted by both parties, as do Gennifer Flowers, the draft issue and the firing of the White House travel office.

Yesterday's action by the White House appeared to be part of a broader effort at damage control relating to the various imbroglios that originate in Arkansas or among the Arkansans who followed Mr. Clinton to Washington.

Mr. Clinton's friend Harry Thomason finally agreed yesterday to provide documents to a House committee that is investigating the White House travel office, said Rep. William F. Clinger Jr., a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee.

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