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Whitewater Hearings May Steal Attention From Health-Care Debate

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BEGINNING on Tuesday: Whitewater - the television show.

The House Banking Committee hearings that leading Democrats tried for months to avert finally begin, to be aired live on C-Span and CNN. The Senate Banking Committee hearings begin on Friday.

The hearings will certainly pop the Whitewater story back into the news, bringing some degree of distraction just as the most extensive health-care bill in history is moving toward the House and Senate floors.

Since independent counsel Robert Fiske has already cleared the White House of legal wrongdoing on the matters before the hearing, the political questions come to the forefront.

Will these hearings put the already-strong public suspicions about President Clinton's personal integrity back in the news and color the health-care battle?

Or will the hearings clear the air, giving Mr. Fiske's report clearing the White House of criminal violations a broader audience?

After a steady winter of Whitewater allegations, Fiske's relatively positive report last month was buried under an avalanche of news about murder charges against O.J. Simpson.

``For the president, it gets better from here,'' said Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, at a Monitor breakfast Friday. ``It could have gotten worse if some of the charges were true.''

The Republicans who are driving this congressional investigation are not expecting any surprising new revelations, if only because their Democratic counterparts have put boundaries on the scope of the hearings.

Democratic allies of the Clinton administration acknowledge, however, that some of the revelations will be embarrassing to the White House.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, for example, kept a diary in which ``he says some things he wouldn't have said if he knew people would read it,'' says Mr. Frank, a member of the House Banking Committee and the designated spokesman for the White House on the Whitewater hearings.

In particular, Mr. Altman's diary describes how upset Hillary Rodman Clinton was that a special counsel had been appointed with a broad mandate to investigate her past conduct.

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