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WATERGATE-INSPIRED LAW EXPIRES DEC. 15

One of the best-known Watergate reforms, the independent counsel law, will expire Dec. 15 because dissident Senate Republicans blocked legislation to keep it in force.

A bill to renew the law died Tuesday when 28 GOP lawmakers threatened to filibuster the legislation, making it impossible to pass the measure in time for the Senate to adjourn early next week.Sponsors vowed to try again next year to revive the law that assures independent investigations of wrongdoing against top government officials.

Even a successful effort to renew the law could take months, given the Republican anger against counsel Lawrence Walsh's five-year, $32 million Iran-Contra investigation of top Reagan administration officials.

The GOP senators singled out "the disgraceful indictment" of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the Iran-Contra prosecution.

But the chief Republican sponsor of the renewal, Sen. William Cohen of Maine, angrily criticized his party colleagues. He warned that if Democrat Bill Clinton becomes president and a scandal hits his administration, the objecting GOP senators will "rue the day" they "presided over the last rites of this legislation."

The independent counsel law was enacted in 1978, five years after a stunned nation watched Richard Nixon fire the first Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. The law was renewed twice.

There will be no new independent counsel investigations after Dec. 15 unless the law is renewed. But current law ensures continuation of the two existing independent counsel probes, including the Iran-Contra investigation and a probe of former officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.