In public and private, Rep. Dan Burton came under bipartisan criticism Tuesday for his handling of the investigation into President Clinton's 1996 campaign. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich invited GOP critics to take complaints directly to the Indiana Republican.
There was grumbling at the weekly, closed-door leadership meeting over the controversy that has erupted since the release of taped jail phone calls involving Whitewater figure Webster Hubbell, Republican sources said.
These sources added that one participant, Rep. Rick Lazio, R-N.Y., said Burton's comments _ he called Clinton a "scumbag" _ and the furor over the Hubbell transcripts had been counterproductive.
They also said Burton had come under renewed pressure to jettison a key aide, investigator David Bossie, who has been a lightning rod for critics of the politically charged investigation.
The internal debate among Republicans came as Gingrich sought in his public statements to deflect criticism away from Burton and turn attention toward the White House, saying administration officials were trying to "spin away" from the comments contained on the Hubbell tapes.
"The question is: Have crimes been committed? Has there been a systematic effort to cover up?" Gingrich said.
Democrats have said Burton released edited transcripts that put Hubbell in the worst possible light.
On the tapes, Hubbell and his wife talked of White House pressure to avoid legal actions that would raise "allegations that might open it up" to Hillary Clinton.
But, in comments originally excluded from Burton's excerpts, Hubbell denied that he received hush money from friends of the president while he was on his way to prison.
To underscore their contention that Burton's investigation is partisan, Democrats circulated a memo from a GOP committee aide to Republican press secretaries about a "targeted press offensive" against Democratics on the panel. It outlined newspapers and conservative talk radio shows in each lawmaker's district, in the hopes that Republicans would contact them.
While Gingrich was critical of Democrats, he did little to defend Burton.
Privately, officials said he was unhappy that Burton had ignored his weekend suggestion that an impartial third party be brought in to prepare the transcripts of Hubbell's tapes.
And within the confines of the closed-door meeting, sources said he urged critics to talk directly to Burton.