House Republicans dealt their leadership a sharp rebuff Thursday, rejecting spending up to $12-million to investigate questionable fund-raising activities in President Clinton's re-election campaign that Democrats called "another witchhunt."
Meanwhile, FBI Director Louis Freeh confirmed to a Senate panel that a grand jury looking at campaign practices is trying to determine whether a foreign country tried to buy influence in the last election cycle.
By 213-210, the House refused to allow a spending package including the investigation money to be brought up for a vote.
Conservative Republicans protested they couldn't allow the House to spend more while cutting other government programs. Liberal Republicans wanted a broader investigation into all questionable campaign practices, including those involving members of Congress.
"The fiscal conservatives don't want to spend the money," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
However, Republicans meeting hours later decided on an outline to allow a vote today to finance the investigation, Gingrich said.
That scenario would have the campaign inquiry getting its money while spending for other House panels would be frozen for 30 days, said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a freshman and one of the defectors Thursday. The House would then vote next month on financing other committees.
At the hearing conducted by the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, the FBI director said that the grand jury was checking into the possibility that a foreign country tried to improperly contribute money to U.S. political campaigns.
"That is really the heart of, part of, our grand jury hearings," he said. Freeh added that the jury was checking to see if "funding or attempted funding or planning was originated not by individuals per se but by a foreign government or state sponsor or ministry."
His comments came in the wake of news reports that intercepts of talks at the Chinese Embassy suggested there were plans regarding illegal contributions to political campaigns.
Over in the House, the vote had been a major setback to leaders. They had spent Thursday morning scrambling to come up with sufficient votes to persuade conservatives to approve the package. But House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas acknowledged the package was headed toward defeat before the vote was cast.
Democrats formed a united front to defeat the package to block approval of $3.8-million sought by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., who is spearheading the investigation of Clinton fund-raising irregularities.
"There's not one day since I've been here that we haven't been investigating somebody or something. The American people are sick of that," said Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif.
Condit said that if Republicans want to pursue their investigation of Clinton, they should negotiate with Senate Republican leaders on a joint House-Senate investigation to avoid duplication.
Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., said Democrats also objected to what he called an additional $8-million "slush fund" in the committee spending package, which the leadership set aside for future and unspecified investigations and "another witchhunt."