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Thompson says lack of support doomed campaign-abuse probes

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Lacking blockbuster revelations and unified support from his own party, Sen. Fred Thompson announced Friday he's suspending hearings on campaign finance abuse and will end the investigation at year's end.

Thompson's hand was forced after Majority Leader Trent Lott declined to push for the extension of time sought by the Tennessee Republican. Thompson left open the possibility that hearings could resume if new information surfaces before the Dec. 31 deadline."I can count as well as the next guy," Thompson said, noting it would take 60 votes to break a certain Democratic filibuster if a proposed extension reached the floor. He said that Lott "can count as well as I can."

But Thompson's problem is not just with Democrats. Several Republicans - some speaking publicly - also have opposed extending the Dec. 31 investigative cutoff date, which was imposed initially to get Democratic votes that allowed the investigation to get started.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a facetious statement regarding the announcement:

"I have no present recollection of ever being a member of this committee. It might have happened . . . .

"This statement summarizes the core of the information the committee has been able to extract from the Clinton administration during these proceedings.

"Since the Democrats have made it clear they won't support the continuation of the committee, except under conditions which are clearly unacceptable, the time has come for the committee to file its report and turn the matter over to an independent counsel. Unfortunately, at the moment, I don't have a high level of confidence one will be appointed."

Thompson received no sympathy from Democrats, who except for three days of hearings were virtually shut out of time to present evidence of Republican wrongdoing.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., one of the most vocal Democratic critics on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, said the hearings collapsed on a faulty foundation of "exaggerated charges and false leads."

"Senator Thompson never had the support of the Republican leadership in this investigation. The leadership always was more concerned that intimidating information would be found about them and (the hearings would become) not just about inflicting damage on President Clinton," Torricelli commented.

The suspension does not mean the end of scrutiny for Clinton administration and Democratic Party officials. The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation and four inquiries that could lead to independent counsels - possibly involving President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

The House's campaign fund-raising investigation, meanwhile, has hardly begun its hearing schedule. That panel has avoided the cutoff date that, Thompson said, allowed White House officials and others to run out the clock on the Senate by stalling production of key materials.

"There is no clock to run here. In fact, the Government Reform and Oversight Committee will hold hearings during the congressional recess," said Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind.