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The Senate and the Prosecutor

SENS. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York and Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland announced last week that, despite an appeal from special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, they would go forward with further Senate hearings into the Whitewater affair.

Mr. Starr, who has obtained 17 indictments and nine plea bargains on Whitewater-related charges in Little Rock, Ark., said the Senate probe would hinder his investigation of President Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign. But the senators wrote back that the prosecutor's interests ''do not outweigh the Senate's strong interest'' in finishing by February.

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The ''Senate's strong interest'' has more to do with politics than a search for truth. Democrats are convinced that there's nothing to Whitewater and want it out of the way before the presidential elections. Many Republicans believe the president is vulnerable, and want to exploit the issue.

Public hearings on Capitol Hill can damage a criminal case, as when the Senate held Iran-contra hearings against the advice of then-special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh. Lt. Col. Oliver North testified under immunity, but that testimony later led to the overturning of his criminal conviction.

Starr has conducted an above-board and successful investigation, which should be allowed to proceed without hindrance. The senators should reconsider and defer to him.

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