WASHINGTON -- Faced with videotapes showing that Republicans, too, used questionable campaign finance tactics, the Republican chairman of a Senate committee sought to keep the hot lights on President Clinton yesterday, saying Clinton had manipulated election laws on a scale never before seen "in the history of American politics."
In a day described by one lawmaker as the "Senate's version of going to the Blockbuster Video store," Republicans on the Governmental Affairs Committee aired several recently released videotapes. The tapes show Clinton courting donors at the White House and intimately greeting such fund-raisers as John Huang, who is under investigation for soliciting illegal foreign donations.
But Democrats on the committee tried to dull the effect of the much-talked-about tapes. Seeking to show that Republicans played the same game, Democrats aired videos that showed President Ronald Reagan asking for the support of donors in the White House, where campaign fund-raising is supposed to be off limits.
"This is an across-the-board, both-party-type problem," said Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, who, like other Democrats on the panel, declared that the entire affair illustrated the need for campaign finance reform.
But the Republican head of the committee, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, insisted that the Democratic tapes were far more egregious. Thompson said the Clinton tapes raised the question of whether the president violated the law by allowing foreign money into his campaign, by raising money on federal property and by disguising his personal campaign ads as Democratic Party "issue" ads.
Federal election laws limit the amount of money presidentialcandidates can spend if they accept public funds, as Clinton and his Republican opponent, Bob Dole, did in 1996.
No such limits apply to the "soft money" raised and spent by political parties. Soft money is supposed to go toward "party-building activities," and not to promote any candidate directly.
In one tape, Clinton tells a group of donors in December 1995 about the importance of the Democratic Party ads -- paid for by the unregulated soft money -- in boosting his own poll numbers.
On the tape, Clinton says: "We realized we could run these ads through the Democratic Party, which meant we could raise money in $20,000 and $50,000 and $100,000 blocks.
"So we didn't have to do it all in $1,000 [donations] and run down what I can spend, which is limited by law. So that is what we have done."
Thompson memo for Reno
Thompson asserted that the tape proved Clinton violated the "intent" of campaign finance laws. The senator said he was sending Attorney General Janet Reno a memo laying out the legal case he believes could be made against the president.
Thompson once again urged Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate possible campaign abuses by the Clinton-Gore campaign.
Other Republicans were even more explicit in their attacks on the president.
"This administration has broken all kinds of records for sleazy campaign practices," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma. The tapes, Nickles contended, are proof of "a conspiracy to evade campaign laws directed by President Clinton, Vice President Gore" and others.
Democrats countered with the transcript of a June 1996 ABC-TV interview with Dole in which the presidential candidate said: "We can, through the Republican National Committee run television ads and other advertising."
The Democrats pointed out that, just like Clinton, Dole believed the law allowed him to benefit from ads paid for by his party, so long as the ads did not explicitly urge a vote for him or against his opponent.
In Dole's words
Referring to a Dole biographical spot paid for by the RNC, Dole explained: "It doesn't say, 'Bob Dole for president.' It has my -- it talks about the Bob Dole story. It also talks about issues. It never mentions the word, that I'm -- it never says that I'm running for president, though I hope that it's fairly obvious since I'm the only one in the picture."
Thompson said there was a distinction between Clinton's and Dole's use of issue ads paid for by their parties.
He said that Clinton went beyond merely coordinating efforts with his party, which is permissible, and actually orchestrated the ads, which Thompson says could be illegal.
"The president himself directed the content," Thompson said. "He changed the ads. He helped raise the money. He helped determine where the ads would run, how often they'd be run.
"This was not just a matter of coordination. This was total control -- total control. We've never seen that before in the history of American politics."
White House lawyers posted outside the hearing room insisted that the Clinton campaign operated within both the letter and the spirit of the election laws.
Lanny J. Davis, a White House counsel, said the Federal Election Commission assumes that such issue ads are designed to help elect a presidential candidate.
"It is obviously legal for the president, and Senator Dole, to be involved in the writing and influencing of what goes into a draft [of an ad], as well as to know it's for their benefit," Davis said.
Involvement in ad
Referring to Dole's role in crafting the biographical ad, Davis said: "Dole is in the ad, he's talking to the camera. Is that involvement in his own ad? I think so."
Lyn Utrecht, who as a lawyer for the Clinton-Gore campaign reviewed the issue ads before they were aired and deemed them legal, said yesterday that her determination was based on FEC opinions that "set forth a very clear standard as to what is permissible for national issue ads."
But, in fact, the legality of the issue ads is a subject of much debate among lawyers, with some Republicans saying they see no violation of law in either the Clinton or Dole ads because neither contained a "vote for" message.
Still, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, said yesterday that the Clinton tapes made him "uncomfortable."
Lieberman said it appeared both Clinton and Dole "thought they were living technically within the law, but were miles away from the intent of the law."
A proponent of campaign finance reform, Lieberman suggested repealing the law that provides public funds for presidential campaigns, given that candidates have managed to raise enormous sums from private donors.
"We're wasting our money," Lieberman said.
"The purpose for which taxpayers are giving money has been so continuously and grossly violated."
The Clinton tapes, requested by the committee in April, have caused a stir since they were belatedly turned over by the White House several weeks ago. In explaining the tardiness, officials in the White House counsel's office said they had not known of the existence of the tapes.
But yesterday, Republicans released documents showing that those officials had in fact known of the practice of taping Clinton's political events, having written memos about such tapings.
Today, the committee is expected to examine the issue and the possibility of obstruction of justice by administration officials.
Pub Date: 10/23/97