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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Campaign-Finance Probe Sparks Bipartisan Sparring

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Senate's probe into campaign-financing abuses got off to a shaky start Wednesday as Democrats complained about the ground rules and balked at a $6.5 million funding plan for the investigation, forcing new efforts to reach a compromise.

While both sides struggled to maintain an aura of cordiality, the sparring -- including a clenched-jaw Democratic response to a Republican's suggestion that the probe could produce "another Watergate" -- showed how taut the nerves are, even before the investigation gets under way.

By the end of their two hours of haggling, Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which will conduct the probe, indicated they wanted to work out their differences.

Committee Chairman Fred Thompson, a Republican, had hoped to win quick approval of a committee budget for this year, including $4.5 million for regular business and $6.5 million for the campaign-financing probe, for which Thompson said he wants to hire 80 investigators and support personnel.

But Democrats complained that the investigation budget was too high and argued Democrats would be put at a disadvantage from the start because of rules allowing the majority party twice as much money and staff as the minority party.

They also wanted specific assurances that the inquiry would target campaign-financing corruption of all kinds, rather than focusing exclusively on last year's presidential campaign and, by implication, on the mounting allegations of Democratic fund-raising excesses on behalf of President Clinton's re-election campaign. Several said they wanted the scope to be broad enough to include inquiries into congressional campaign abuses.

Thompson repeatedly assured Democrats he would not limit the panel's focus to the 1996 presidential campaign. But he offered few other guarantees and rejected the Democrats' request for a termination date for the investigation and hearings.

Although he could have pushed the budget through on a party-line vote, Thompson said he did not want to start out the investigation on a "divisive note." Instead, he delayed a vote and scheduled another meeting for Thursday so that the committee's Republican and Democratic staffs could work to iron out problems dealing with the investigation's scope and rules for Democratic participation.

When a colleague suggested that Democrats should trust Thompson to protect their interests, Thompson laughed and, paraphrasing former president Ronald Reagan's comment about arms-control practices of the former Soviet Union, said, "Trust but verify, I think they're saying."

They also wanted specific assurances about rules for Democratic participation in the inquiry.

, disputing Democratic arguments that he had previously characterized the probe as limited in this fashion.