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Clinton considering private talk with senators about his pardons

Leaders aim to get 'the basic facts' from the former president

WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton is considering an offer to be questioned in private by senators about his last-minute pardons, an aide said Sunday.

The Republican leading the Senate's pardons investigation said he thinks Clinton "may be inclined" to accept the offer, while the former president's spokeswoman said it was too early to say what might happen.

Senate leaders, treading gingerly over the prospect of trying to compel Clinton's testimony about his 176 last-minute pardons and commutations, have suggested a meeting with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and a Democrat as a way of "getting to the basic facts," Specter said.

Clinton's spokeswoman, Julia Payne, responded: "With all due respect to Senator Specter, it is very premature to talk about what the president may or may not do." She said Clinton had no time frame for making a decision about the proposal.

Specter, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee's investigation, said he discussed the option with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., as well as the committee chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, and other Senate leaders. He detailed the proposal in a letter to Clinton last week.

Specter also said he had an "informal conversation" with Clinton's chief of staff, Karen Tramontano, and was told Clinton "is thinking about it." Payne said Tramontano had wanted more information about the offer.

"I think as the facts build up, the president is evaluating it and may be inclined to come in," Specter said on ABC's "This Week."

Committees in both the House and Senate are investigating whether the pardons, including one granted to fugitive financier Marc Rich, were linked to political contributions.

Specter said he suggested "very professional questioning by me with another Democrat, if the president chooses, in an office, his office if he would like, getting to the basic facts."

Were Clinton to reject the proposal, Specter said he did not know what would happen. "Technically there could be a subpoena. I don't think that will happen," he said, citing the "sensitivity" of forcing a president to testify.

On Monday, the House Government Reform Committee was expected to get more details about large donations to the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, which is raising money for a library to be built in Little Rock, Ark. The committee already has received a list of the top donors, but was awaiting specific information, including dates of contributions.

Rich's ex-wife, songwriter Denise Rich, contributed $450,000 to the foundation, and her friend, Beth Dozoretz, a former finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, has pledged to raise $1 million.

Dozoretz refused to testify before the House committee last week about her involvement in Rich's pardon, invoking her constitutional right against self-incrimination. Denise Rich also has refused to testify.

Noting the almost daily revelations about lobbying by political donors on behalf of pardon applicants, Specter said, "It naturally raises a question. It doesn't come to a legal conclusion, it won't stand up in court, but I think it is something that ought to be answered, and, again, only the president can give the answer."

Specter also said that Congress may consider reporting requirements for private foundations like the one handling Clinton's library fund-raising, and may look at more lobbying registration requirements for people who seek things from the president.

Meantime, Vice President Dick Cheney said the Bush administration was moving ahead with its legislative agenda and trying to avoid being drawn into the pardon controversy.

"We have not wanted to spend a lot of time on it. We have a lot of business to do: budgets, tax policy, foreign policy. And we'll let Bill Clinton and the Congress sort out what, if anything, they want to say about the pardons," Cheney said on CBS' "Face the Nation."