WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders, unmollified by a new Justice Department inquiry into whether a special prosecutor should probe President Clinton's fund-raising role, sharply turned up the pressure yesterday on Attorney General Janet Reno.
"Frankly, she's months late, if not almost a year late," said Sen. Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the Senate committee investigating the fund-raising of the 1996 election. "She should have begun the independent counsel process some time ago."
The Justice Department informed the White House on Friday that it had launched a 30-day review to determine whether to undertake a 90-day inquiry into whether telephone solicitations on government property by the president necessitates appointment of a special prosecutor.
Appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation," a second Republican member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee ridiculed the deliberate pace of this process -- and called on Reno to step down.
"She is way behind the curve," said Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. "We need some more aggressive action, some stronger leadership. And I, frankly, think the attorney general should resign."
White House lawyers continued to assert that no laws were broken by the president or by Vice President Al Gore, whose role also is being probed by Justice. Gore has acknowledged placing 86 fund-raising calls from his White House office.
Clinton was asked by his staff to make calls as well, but his aides say he is uncertain whether he followed through on those requests.
"As he's stated, he may have. He may not have," senior White House adviser Rahm Emanuel said yesterday. "He doesn't remember whether he did or did not."
Republicans say it really doesn't matter -- that there is already enough in the record about violations that are much less technical in nature to warrant a special counsel.
"The most serious parts of this aren't necessarily the telephone calls made from the White House or from government property; it's the foreign influence in the last presidential campaign," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, said yesterday. "Those are really serious charges, and they have to be looked into. There's a conflict of interest for the attorney general. She should request the appointment of an independent counsel, right now."
'Body of evidence'
Added Cochran: "We have a body of evidence that's already in our hearing record that clearly shows the White House was used at the president's own suggestion for sleepovers at the White House to reward fund-raisers and those who would contribute to the party."
Republicans also hammered away on the recent White House acknowledgment that some of the "soft money" solicited from wealthy donors by Gore -- funds that are supposed to be used to build the political party and not help a specific candidate -- was siphoned by the Democratic National Committee into "hard-money" accounts for specific candidates. Those funds are strictly regulated by federal law.
Earlier, Reno cited the absence of any hard-money abuses as the reason she was not investigating Gore's actions. White House officials now rue that explanation.
"She painted herself into a box on the soft-money issue, and she didn't need to," one top White House aide complained in an interview yesterday. "Soft money has now led everyone down the wrong alley."
From the White House perspective, the relevant issue is who received the phone solicitations from Gore -- and perhaps Clinton -- and not where the phone calls originated. Lawyers for Clinton and Gore stress that the law prohibiting fund-raising on federal property was designed to prevent a supervisor in the federal government from pressuring employees to make political contributions.
Last spring, under advice from White House attorney Charles Burson, Gore said repeatedly that there was "no controlling legal authority" about whether an elected official was in violation of the statute by placing solicitation phone calls to private citizens.
"If we had to say it all over again, we'd be more forceful on this point," special White House counsel Lanny J. Davis said yesterday. "It's legal. Period."
Clinton did not participate in yesterday's flurry of words and accusations. Asked about Reno's review by reporters on Air Force One as he flew to Washington from San Francisco, the president said: "I don't really know anything about it."
For their part, White House aides and Democrats on Capitol Hill spent the day trying to deflect some of the mounting GOP heat directed at Reno.
"She ought to be able to do her job without political pressure," Davis said.
Appearing on various network talk shows alongside critical Republicans, a succession of Democratic senators said much the same thing.
Suggestion is 'unfair'
"I think the suggestion that she should resign is very unfair," said Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut in response to Cochran's criticism of Reno. "The fact is that the attorney general is not a politician. She's a law officer."
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, insisted that the real lesson of the information collected by the investigating Senate committee is the need for campaign finance reform that would outlaw large contributions.
"What really bothers me is the campaign finance system where millions of dollars are legally offered for access, Democrats and Republicans," Levin said on "Fox News Sunday."
"The system is wrong," Levin said. "It is legal to give money for access. We should change the system. We can point fingers at each other all day long. We can argue as to whether or not something legal or illegal was done. The system must be changed. The soft-money loophole must be closed."
Pub Date: 9/22/97