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EXTEND THE WHITEWATER PROBE?

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There has to be a reasonable middle ground between the prompt end to the Whitewater hearings being demanded by congressional Democrats and the open-ended fishing expedition being sought by Senate probers.

How about extending and funding the investigation for three or four more months, suspending it for the duration of the election campaign, then resuming the probe after Congress reconvenes - if more hearings are really needed by then?As it is now, both Democratic critics and Republican defenders of the marathon probe make some legitimate points.

So far, this investigation into President and Hillary Rodham Clinton's roles in a failed Arkansas land deal have dragged on three times longer than the Watergate hearings and three times longer than the Iran-Contra hearings. The Senate probe's cost to the taxpayers comes to $1.4 million. Now Chairman Alfonse D'Amato is seeking another $600,000 to continue the work of his Senate Whitewater committee.

But then the White House has undeniably been dragging its feet and has yet to disclose the full facts about the venture, including the Clintons' relationship to the banking activities of James McDougal, a Clinton business partner in Whitewater, Hillary Clinton's work as a lawyer on Whitewater matters, and the strange movements of documents between her Arkansas law firm and various basements and closets in the Executive Mansion.

Despite all that, Democrats are overreacting to efforts to extend the hearings. Their threat to resist an extension with a filibuster is particularly extreme and misguided.

After all, the latest polls suggest that President Clinton's re-election prospects have not been seriously impaired by the inquiry. Nor have those prospects suffered severely from a separate independent counsel's inquiry in which several Arkansas officials have received criminal con-vic-tions.

But President Clinton could suffer if his Senate defenders look like they are trying to keep the full facts from coming to light. Likewise, the Republican party could suffer if Senate investigators look like they are more interested in prying Clinton out of the White House than in discovering the truth.

By all means, the threat to filibuster should be called off because it would be properly seen as an attempt at stonewalling that would hurt President Clinton and his defenders. And the Senate Whitewater committee should be given an extension - but not a blank check and not a license to muddy the waters during the fall election campaign.