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... And the Senator Who Turns Up the Political Thermostat

IN October of 1993, Sen. Alfonse D'Amato sat down at a table with reporters, including this one, and said he would deny ever talking to them. The subject: Whitewater. The senator was encouraging the press to burrow into the affair.

Now the New York Republican, as chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, is himself looking into the tangled allegations about the Clintons' dealings with a failed Arkansas savings and loan. He appears on talk shows to discuss the affair. Senator D'Amato has become a political pit-bull, shaking the investigation back and forth with iron-tight jaws.

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This new role for the Brooklyn native - ethics investigator - is one that drives his critics wild. D'Amato himself is no stranger to controversy about money and politics, and Democrats grumble that he is engaging in sheer hypocrisy. If he goes too far, he may risk a spotlight shining back on himself.

The senator says he is simply trying to get the facts, and doesn't have a political agenda. Last week, on ABC's Nightline, he stated: ''We're going to get those facts, and then we'll make a decision and a determination.''

The decision and determination seems to revolve around D'Amato's view that Whitewater is akin to Watergate. He points his finger at alleged abuse of power, violations of the law, and coverups.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, however, has his doubts. Last week, Senator Dodd compared the hearings before D'Amato's committee to the opening act of the 1996 presidential campaign. ''Unfortunately, the recent pattern seems to be that as soon as public attention starts to drift from these hearings, due to a lack of any new revelations or any new evidence of wrongdoing, reckless charges and accusations are made in order to generate new headlines,'' complained Dodd in a statement at the hearings.

Controversy is no stranger to D'Amato. In 1989, the Senate Select Committee on Ethics investigated him. Among the complaints was the charge that D'Amato's brother, Armand, used Senate stationery to help a client. The senator was ultimately reprimanded. His brother was convicted in May 1993 of seven counts of mail fraud, but that conviction was overturned on appeal.

D'Amato also raised eyebrows last summer when he parodied O.J. Simpson Judge Lance Ito on the Don Imus radio show. He quickly had to apologize to Asian-Americans. And, there have been complaints from political opponents in the past that D'Amato received questionable campaign contributions. (D'Amato has called such allegations ridiculous.)

The senator has said that he isn't aware of each gift. He receives many contributions. In 1993-94, D'Amato collected $1.6 million from individuals and Political Action Committees (PACs). But those contributions jumped in 1995 after the senator became chairman of the banking committee. The Center for Responsive Politics says the senator received $2.7 million for the first six months of last year.

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A significant portion of the senator's contributions is from brokerage houses, savings and loans, banks, and insurance companies. Some of these organizations have competing interests. When it comes to framing legislation, D'Amato has had to be pragmatic in balancing these concerns.

According to one former congressional staffer, Senator D'Amato arrived at the markup of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act of 1991 with well over 100 amendments. Many of the amendments were contradictory.

For example, one D'Amato-sponsored amendment would have barred banks from selling insurance; however, a second D'Amato amendment would have allowed banks to sell insurance if they used small towns as their base. None of the amendments was added to the legislation.

Within the Senate banking committee, D'Amato is also known for what some consider his flip-flop on extending the power of the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) to prosecute people who had defrauded thrifts. Originally, D'Amato was opposed to the extension.

Later, it appeared the extension might be used to snare President Clinton and his wife. D'Amato reversed himself. The senator was not available for this story.

The senator has no shortage of political enemies, who question his motives. ''He wins the gold medal for shameless hypocrisy, and there is a lot of competition in politics,'' says Mark Green, who ran against D'Amato in 1986.

GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes refers to D'Amato as ''commissar'' since D'Amato is part of the New York state Republican leadership supporting Sen. Bob Dole and opposing other candidates' inclusion in the state primary.

D'Amato, however, has had little trouble winning reelection, in large part because of his reputation as ''Senator Pothole,'' the person to call to get government action on a problem.

Says one lobbyist in Albany: ''Even the Democrats call D'Amato to get things done.'' The senator himself has stated, ''I work my tail off for New York and for programs that are good and right - and I deliver.'' In person, the senator can disarm even his worst critics. The former congressional staffer refers to him as a ''charming rascal.''

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