The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's investigation of campaign finance abuses effectively ended Friday.
Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., announced he was suspending public hearings and acknowledged that he cannot persuade the Senate to eliminate the Dec. 31 deadline it set for the committee to complete its work.
After 32 days of hearings and an expenditure of $2.6-million, Thompson stopped short of announcing a formal end to the investigation, which grew out of the widely perceived fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign. He said that, if necessary, he will call the committee back for additional hearings before the cutoff date.
But he acknowledged that, at this stage, the committee did not have the caliber of witnesses and information to justify a continuation of public hearings. "I'm not going to have hearings for the sake of hearings," Thompson said.
The effective end of the Senate investigation left the campaign finance field open to the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee headed by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. The House panel, which has no deadline before the end of the 105th Congress next year, is scheduled to resume public hearings late next week.
At the White House, reaction among President Clinton's aides was mixed. One administration official said the Thompson committee's focus on the president's re-election campaign had produced embarrassments for Clinton, but no evidence of illegality. But the White House is still facing serious legal and political problems from a Justice Department inquiry and the House panel. "Monday is another day," said one White House aide.
Thompson did his best to portray his committee's work in a positive light, predicting that it will lead to the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising practices, including Clinton's and Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising roles, and the enactment next year of legislation to overhaul the campaign financing system.
Without such legislation, Thompson warned, the excesses of 1996 will look minuscule by the 2000 presidential election.
Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the committee's ranking Democrat, said only a "major development" would lead to any more Senate hearings and he doubted that would occur. "I think we have developed about as much information as we're going to develop," he said.
To the very end, Thompson and Glenn reflected the deep partisan division within the committee. Thompson complained about lack of cooperation from the Democrats, saying that much of the panel's time was consumed by their attempts at "defending (and) explaining away" Democratic fund-raising improprieties. But to Glenn, the main failure of the hearings was that they began on such a political note and continued as an exercise to "get Democrats."
Thompson gave the committee partial credit for encouraging Attorney General Janet Reno to shake things up at the Justice Department and for stimulating the department to open preliminary inquiries into the fund-raising related activities of Clinton, Gore, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and former Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.
Thompson began the hearing process last July by announcing that it would examine a plan by the Chinese government to undermine the U.S. election system through the use of illegal, foreign campaign contributions. That aspect of the probe never got off the ground, in part because so many key witnesses fled the country or threatened to take the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
But Thompson on Friday reiterated his original charge. "We know that there was a plan, and it involved high levels of the Chinese government, to affect our electoral process," he said.
Thompson was the chief Republican counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s, an experience that at times seemed to haunt him in this investigation.
He said the high drama of the Watergate hearings raised the bar for judging all congressional investigations.