WASHINGTON -- Freshly re-elected as Senate Republican leader, Trent Lott said yesterday that pressure was building in Congress for an aggressive investigation of Democratic fund raising as a result of Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to seek a special prosecutor.
Lott said he would try to avoid a partisan spectacle that could damage prospects for a productive start to the new Congress.
But Reno's decision Friday to reject calls for an independent counsel, as well as revelations about Democratic fund raising that continue to emerge in news reports, place the burden squarely on Congress to examine the matter, Lott said.
"It's looking more and more like we have got to get into it and find out what happened," the 55-year-old Mississippian said at a news conference with his newly minted leadership team.
"We have a responsibility to do that."
Lott said Congress could hardly ignore such revelations as the latest report that Mochtar Riady, an Indonesian businessman whose associates gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, had written to President Clinton outlining policy positions he wanted the U.S. government to take in Asia.
Clinton has played down the letter as merely typical of many he receives.
In addition to electing Lott by acclamation yesterday, Senate Republicans chose Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma as majority whip, the No. 2 spot, and Sen. Connie Mack of Florida as the No. 3 leader, conference chairman.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats, determined to resist any inquiry that might embarrass Clinton, said they would insist that complaints against Republican fund raising be included as well.
"We will support any legitimate effort to look into infractions," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whom the Democrats unanimously reaffirmed yesterday as their Senate leader.
"But we would remind our Republican colleagues and everyone else that infractions occurred on both sides, and we would hope this would be a bipartisan inquiry into all of what needs to be done to clean up the current mess we find with regard to campaign finance."
Although the new, more conservative Senate will have a larger Republican majority -- 55 to 45 -- Democrats still have enough votes to block any action with a filibuster, Daschle warned.
The Democratic leadership team re-elected yesterday, in addition to Daschle, included Sen. Wendell H. Ford of Kentucky for the No. 2 job, minority whip, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland as conference secretary, the No. 3 position.
Lott says he is determined that the fund-raising inquiry not mar the harmony of the first few weeks of the congressional term, which formally begins Jan. 7.
He has assigned the inquiry to Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who two decades ago was the top Republican lawyer for the Watergate committee and is now taking over as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee.
Thompson will begin hearings in February or March, Lott said.
At the same time -- or perhaps even earlier -- the Senate Rules Committee will begin hearings on broader questions surrounding federal campaign laws, which lawmakers in both parties agree need to be fixed -- somehow.
Many of nine Republican freshmen and seven Democratic newcomers complained of campaigns in which millions of dollars were spent against them by special-interest groups, some with no connection at all to their opponents.
"We all feel like survivors of a war rather than victors in a political process," said Sen.-elect Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who is a wounded Vietnam veteran.
But a common desire for change does not mean that lawmakers will be able to produce an evenhanded plan that gives no advantage to one party or the other.
"I don't think we're going to get more than some additional disclosure requirements and a bipartisan commission to recommend broader changes," said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
A member of the huge and boisterous class of House Republican freshmen two years ago, Brownback is now "repeating my freshman year," taking the Senate seat vacated by Bob Dole.
He arrives in a vastly different atmosphere this time.
Instead of openly challenging the Democratic president, the Republican leadership wants to create at least the appearance of cooperation on such priorities as balancing the budget, granting tax relief, improving education and expanding access to health care.
That's why Reno's failure to appoint a special counsel to look into the fund-raising matter complicates life for Lott, who aides say wants his first full term as Senate majority leader to open in a harmonious tone.
With a highly charged investigation likely to target Democrats, Lott fears that the perception of Republicans as partisan bullies might backfire later.
"This isn't a fight we picked," said Susan Irby, Lott's press secretary.
"Maybe they are trying to set us up."
Pub Date: 12/04/96