WASHINGTON -- The House erupted yesterday into a partisan feud sparked by a recent barrage of attacks from Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has accused President Clinton and other Democrats of concealing campaign fund-raising abuses in the 1996 campaign.
The acrimony threatens Congress' ability to forge agreements over a range of delicate issues, from tobacco control to health insurance reform to sweeping changes in bankruptcy laws.
"The Republican consultants tell the Republicans to crank up the rhetoric, and what do you know, House Republican leadership does it simultaneously," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate Democratic leader. "The more the Republicans bring [Clinton] up, perhaps the better it is for Democrats, but the worse it gets for the real prospects of getting some things done this year."
Responding to Gingrich's attacks on Clinton, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt yesterday fired off an irate letter to Gingrich, urging the Georgia Republican to refrain from any decisions that could affect the House investigation of Democratic campaign fund-raising improprieties.
"Your unfortunate statements evidence an utter disregard for the comity that should guide deliberations within this body and a forfeiting of any pretense that may have remained that you are committed to a fair and impartial investigation," Gephardt wrote.
The clash began two weeks ago, when the Indiana Republican leading the fund-raising inquiry, Rep. Dan Burton, said he was "out to get" Clinton and called the president a "scumbag." Democrats on Burton's committee responded by blocking the Republicans' request for immunity for four investigation witnesses.
The rancor gave Gingrich an opening last weekend to launch a direct attack on the president's character. Gingrich has avoided any mention of the sex-and-perjury allegations surrounding Monica Lewinsky. Instead, he has focused his invective on the 1996 campaign finance scandal and what he called "the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice, cover-up and effort to avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history."
The attacks have been launched at partisan affairs, like Republican fund-raisers, where Gingrich can play to the party's conservative base in an election year. Yesterday, at a Republican women's conference, he spoke of "an enormous scandal" whose "ramifications are historic."
On Wednesday, at a fund-raiser in Indianapolis, Gingrich stood up for Burton at Clinton's expense.
"As to those who question Dan Burton's propriety, I'd rather stand next to an honest man who uses a clumsy word than an illegal man who has five sharp spinners," Gingrich was quoted as saying in the Indianapolis Star.
Clinton chose yesterday to sidestep the fracas.
"I can be responsible for a lot of things, but I'm not responsible for the speaker's behavior; neither will I respond to it," the president said when asked about Gingrich at a news conference.
He added, "Nothing the speaker does can prevent me from working with him" on legislation.
But fellow Democrats were not so reticent. The Democratic National Committee fired off a press release saying that Gingrich was continuing his "redescent into the gutter of American politics."
Gephardt said Republicans expected the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, to send Congress a report soon outlining potentially impeachable offenses he suspects were committed by Clinton.
"You begin to wonder if there's not a preset plan to use the [House] investigatory system to reach a conclusion they have already reached," Gephardt said.
Gingrich declined to comment on Gephardt's letter, saying only that "the president should tell the truth to the American people. It's that simple."
Pub Date: 5/01/98