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Hatch: White House knew of China money

Republicans demanding an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising activities said Sunday the White House knew of Chinese attempts to buy influence and suggested that Attorney General Janet Reno may be guilty of dereliction of duty.

The head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., also said his committee is "studying the law of impeachment," although he wouldn't proceed unless there was a "smoking gun."

"This administration knew that this attempt was being made," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said of the reported plan last year by the Chinese to funnel money to U.S. politicians.

"I suspect that this is another case of a senator hyperventilating on a Sunday talk show," White House press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters. "If he is certain of that, his information is contrary to what has been communicated to me and contrary to what I've briefed you."

The White House last week said the FBI briefed two National Security Council staffers about the alleged Chinese activities, but those people were told not to pass the information on to higher officials. Reno also said she tried to call Anthony Lake, who was then head of the security council, on the matter but wasn't able to reach him.

The FBI has disputed the White House version, and Hatch took the bureau's side. "They are really burned up about it, and they should be," he said.

The FBI told the State Department, the CIA, congressional intelligence committees and at least seven members of Congress, Hatch said. The reason the security council staffers didn't pass along the information, Hatch alleged, was "they knew there were all kinds of people who had already heard about it in the administration."

Hatch, speaking on CBS' Face the Nation, did not say who knew or what they might have known _ President Clinton has denied knowledge of the Chinese plan _ but said: "There are just too many things going on here that indicate this may reach the highest levels of the White House and the Democratic National Committee."

Hatch contends that high-level involvement makes it incumbent that Reno appoint an independent counsel to look into the whole issue of possible illegal fund-raising activities by the White House.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., on ABC's This Week, also suggested that Reno may have a conflict of interests if she, responsible for the FBI, knows more about the Chinese matter than she is telling the public. "It may well be that if there is sufficient evaluation that the public doesn't know about, she may well be in the situation of dereliction" unless she requests an independent counsel.

He said the scandal over Democratic acceptance of contributions from foreign donors "is very definitely different now than ever before, even Watergate."

Democrats as well were on the offensive. The new Democratic National Committee chairman, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, challenged his Republican counterpart to agree to stop taking all soft money, the massive and largely unregulated donations to political parties.

"There is too much money in politics today, and something needs to be done," Romer told Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, on Fox News Sunday.