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Whitewater Pulls Democrats Deep Into Its Swirls

Broad congressional hearings appear inevitable, as Fiske deepens legal probe

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LIKE canoeists on a turbulent Class 5 river, Democrats in the White House and Congress are being tossed about by the Whitewater rapids as they paddle desperately for safer water.

Republicans and a special prosecutor keep making the waves bigger and the current faster.

Twin Whitewater problems confront Democrats this week.

On Capitol Hill, party leaders faced what they feared would be a media circus, a Whitewater ``donnybrook'' in hearings on March 24 before the House Banking Committee. Republicans had hoped to raise the Whitewater issue there with a star-studded cast of witnesses, including Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and his deputy, Roger Altman.

Banking chairman Henry Gonzalez (D) of Texas unexpectedly canceled the hearings, which are mandated by law, and accused Republicans of planning ``to launch yet another smoke bomb at the White House.''

Ironically, all sides agree hearings are eventually inevitable. Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution says postponing the banking committee hearings will just ``build anticipation'' among the public.

Instead of this week's hearings, Representative Gonzalez suggested that a select House committee be appointed to probe Whitewater. A select committee, opposed by the White House, would have far broader powers to probe all aspects of the affair.

Meanwhile, special prosecutor Robert Fiske added to the political pressure on Democrats when he struck a deal with David Hale, an indicted former Arkansas judge, to testify before a federal grand jury.

Mr. Hale, who was appointed to his judgeship by then-Governor Clinton, agreed to a plea bargain on fraud charges with Mr. Fiske in exchange for his testimony, according to wire reports.

Hale, who once ran a company that handled federally backed loans for small businesses, has blamed the president for his legal troubles. He alleged that Clinton once pressured him to make a $300,000 loan to one of the Clinton's business partners in Whitewater.

The president has denied ever pressuring Hale. On a Florida trip earlier this week, Clinton said of the latest accusation: ``It's just all a bunch of bull.''

The president's abruptness was reflected in Washington, where Whitewater made tempers flare.

Sharp words

Chairman Gonzalez lashed out at the senior Republican on the banking committee, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. Gonzalez accused Representative Leach of violating a pledge not to use congressional hearings to trespass into the area of the special counsel's investigation.

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