Power Surge

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Think Democrats are excited about their upcoming hearings on the
Enron debacle? With fully ten congressional committees planning
hearings over the coming weeks, Democratic staffers are practically
tripping over one another to promote their own productions. "We
were the first committee to announce we were having a hearing, back
on November 29," boasts the spokesman for New Mexico Democrat Jeff
Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources
Committee. Not so, argues a spokesman for North Dakota's Byron
Dorgan, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer
Affairs. "Dorgan held the first hearing," he says, back on December
18. Hmm. OK, well what makes each of these hearings special?
Bingaman's spokesman assures that his boss's will be the most sober
and evenhanded. "This thing is becoming pretty politicized among
Republicans and Democrats. [Bingaman's] interest is in the markets."
But Dorgan's flack says much the same thing: "He wants a very
methodical and thoughtful approach. There may be other hearings on
the Hill that are flashier and move faster." An aide to yet another
Democratic senator, for his part, insists that "Dorgan will really
overplay it.... He tends to make things a little more in-your-face
partisan." According to this aide, "Carl Levin"--who is conducting
his own subcommittee hearings--"is the real hope." Got that?All this spin reveals the contradictory dynamic at work in the
Democrats' nascent Enron investigations. On the one hand, everyone
wants to be out in front in case the unfolding scandal turns up
real dirt on a prominent member of the administration. On the
other, they're terrified that if it doesn't, the whole thing will
blow up in their faces, making them look like partisan hacks. "It's
fraught with danger," says an aide to one prominent Senate
Democrat. Indeed, the White House has already begun laying the
groundwork for a counterattack should the Dems overreach. "They
risk looking like a partisan group of politicians who are on a
witch hunt," an administration official told The Washington Times
this week. So individual Democrats are simultaneously telling the
press that they are the ones most likely to get to the bottom of
the scandal, and that when they do, there may not be a lot there.

The Democrats are right to worry about scandal overstretch. Few
things, after all, did more to erode Republican majorities in the
House and Senate in the 1990s than the GOP's endless, largely
fruitless, investigations of the Clinton White House. Republican Al
D'Amato's long hours of interrogating Clintonites in 1996 soured
his approval ratings in New York and may have cost him his seat two
years later. Tennessee Republican Fred Thompson, once hailed as a
presidential contender, also saw his standing plummet after his
failed inquiry into foreign donations to the 1996 Clinton-Gore
campaign. When his hearings convened, Thompson boldly claimed he
would reveal a coordinated plot by the Chinese government to
influence American elections. In the end he unearthed plenty of
slimy activity, but his hearings, as The New York Times put it,
"produced [not] a shred of public evidence to substantiate Senator
Thompson's charge of Chinese influence." Later the senator grumbled
about the daunting challenge he'd faced. "It's a big malleable
mess. It's a bunch of different scandals all intertwined, but it
has no consistent story line." Already, after a few weeks spent
discussing accounting firms and shell companies and derivatives,
Democrats are wondering whether the same description will apply to
Enron. "If you claim x and you can only prove half of x--even if
half of x is really bad--it's ultimately a failure," frets a leading
Democratic strategist.

These days the man sitting in Fred Thompson's seat as chairman of
the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee is Joe Lieberman--like
Thompson, a presidential hopeful with a reputation for integrity.
Lieberman's hearings may wind up being the most visible. But his
determination not to blow this reputation has put Lieberman in a
tricky position. Cautious by nature, Lieberman has always been
sensitive to the perception that he's positioning himself to run for
president in 2004, and he is not eager to use his committee
chairmanship--which entails primary oversight over the White
House--casually. For months Lieberman has kept a wary distance from
the combative rhetoric of his House counterpart, Henry Waxman, the
ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.
Lieberman has shown little interest, for instance, in Waxman's
efforts to pressure the White House to release documents concerning
Dick Cheney's energy task force. And while Waxman has written to
Paul O'Neill, Don Evans, and Andy Card demanding that they explain
their Enron contacts in greater detail, Lieberman took a more
judicious view on cbs's "Face the Nation" last weekend: "[W]e've
got to ask, where was the federal government and its agencies? Not
only back to January twentieth when the Bush administration with all
its contacts with Enron took over, but before that." Back to the
Clinton administration, in other words--how's that for bipartisan
fashion? But while this approach may help Lieberman maintain his
high-minded reputation, it doesn't necessarily endear him to his
more partisan colleagues. Asked recently what House Democrats
expected from Lieberman's hearings, one aide sighed, "We're hoping
for the best."

Some familiar partisans are spoiling for the fight--notably Ted
Kennedy, who will eagerly hammer the plight of the little guy at
his Senate Labor Committee hearings. But most Democratic
presidential contenders are performing their own versions of
Lieberman's balancing act. For instance, Massachusetts Senator John
Kerry, rarely reluctant to bash the White House, has been measured
on the topic of Enron--although he does plan to introduce
legislation updating worker pension regulations soon. And other
prominent Dems are still biding their time. Hillary Clinton has
kept her own counsel thus far, as have Democratic leaders Dick
Gephardt and Tom Daschle (who are traveling this week in the Middle
East and Central Asia, respectively).

But beneath the faade of serene disinterest, competition among at
least seven Democratic investigations is fierce. One source
familiar with the situation says there have already been disputes
between committees about where key witnesses will appear first. Ask
Enron superlawyer Robert Bennett about the Senate, and he'll rail
against "a legion of committees and subcommittees fighting for
jurisdiction and airtime on this." Bennett says the pace of
document leaks to the media has already convinced him that a
"competition between committees" to make the biggest splash is
already underway.

The irony is that in the end none of them may make much of a splash.
In the absence of a smoking gun--which few in Congress anticipate,
even privately-- Democrats will be happy simply to grind down the
White House in the media for a few weeks. "This isn't a scandal so
much as a p.r. problem which emphasizes [Bush's] political
deficiency: People don't think he's on their side," says the
Democratic strategist. "[It's] the Marie Antoinette problem." And
it's coming soon to a hearing room near you.

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