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White House admits meddling in Pennsylvania race

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Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., says White House wanted him to drop out of race.

Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., says White House wanted him to drop out of race.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Forced to disclose backstage political bargaining, President Barack Obama's embarrassed White House said Friday it had enlisted Bill Clinton to try to ease Rep. Joe Sestak out of Pennsylvania's Senate primary with a job offer.

Nothing wrong with that, the White House said. Oh, yes, there was, Republicans countered.

The administration admission — it said chief of staff Rahm Emanuel had asked the former president to call Sestak — left many questions unanswered, and it seemed unlikely the issue had been put to rest. For Obama, the revelations called into question his repeated promises to run an open government that was above back-room deals. And for Sestak, they raised questions why he kept talking about the offer — a 60-second conversation, he said Friday — in the first place.

"I wasn't interested, and that was the bottom line," Sestak said on the steps of the Capitol.

Seeking to quiet the clamor over a possible political trade, the White House released a report describing the offer that was intended to clear a path for Sen. Arlen Specter to win the Democratic nomination. Sestak stayed in the race and eventually defeated Specter to become the Democratic nominee, ending Specter's 30-year Senate tenure.

After a week of silence, Sestak answered reporters' questions on last summer's offer.

He said he cut Clinton short after hearing only a few words about a possible post on a presidential board and said the former president immediately dropped the subject during a phone call.

"There was nothing wrong that was done," Sestak said.

White House Counsel Robert Bauer rendered his own verdict in a two-page report that said there was no improper conduct in the offer. No one in the administration discussed the offer with Sestak, Bauer said. The report did not say what, if any, contacts or promises the White House had with Specter on the matter. It also did not reveal whether Obama was aware of Clinton's role.

White House lawyers prepared the summary weeks ago and earlier this week shared it with representatives for Sestak and for Clinton. Bauer based his determination on conversations with White House officials and did not speak directly with Sestak or Clinton before reaching a conclusion.

Clinton and Obama shared a private lunch at the White House on Thursday, although White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he was not aware the Pennsylvania primary was a topic. Speaking with reporters traveling with Obama on Air Force One from Louisiana to Illinois Friday evening, Gibbs that he hadn't spoken with Obama about Sestak's latest comments.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House oversight committee who unsuccessfully had sought a Justice Department investigation, said Obama had become a part of the Washington culture he decried.

"It's pretty clear from the White House statement that they intended to get him out of the race by offering him a position, and that's illegal and it's unethical," Issa said just moments after Sestak spoke.

Said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele: "The memo frankly raises more questions: What was Bill Clinton authorized to offer? Did President Obama sign off on this conversation before it took place?"

"Now more than ever it is clear that this White House is not capable of policing itself and needs to open itself to an independent investigation."

Sestak, who had said a job was offered but had provided no details, acknowledged Friday that he had had the conversation with Clinton. He said the former president told him he should stay in the U.S. House and perhaps join a presidential board, either involving intelligence or defense matters to use his background as a Navy officer.

Specter declined to comment. Clinton, campaigning in Little Rock, Ark., for Sen. Blanche Lincoln's re-election bid, ignored reporters' shouted questions.

The report said Emanuel enlisted the help of Clinton as a go-between with Sestak. Clinton agreed to raise the offer of a seat on a presidential advisory board or another executive board if Sestak dropped his bid, "which would avoid a divisive Senate primary," the report said.

Under the proposed arrangement, Sestak would have been able to remain in the House while serving on a board. It was not clear why the White House — which has the power to offer Cabinet posts and sought-after embassy jobs — believed Sestak would be interested in just an unpaid advisory position.

Sestak defeated the five-term Specter, who had switched from Republican to Democrat last year at the White House's urging, in the May 18 Democratic primary.

Emanuel and Sestak both worked in the White House when Clinton was president in the 1990s, and both remain close with their former boss. Sestak was a supporter of Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her 2008 presidential bid.

Bauer, in the White House report, argued that previous Democratic and Republican administrations, "motivated by the same goals, discussed alternative paths to service for qualified individuals also considering campaigns for public office." The report said such actions aren't illegal nor unethical.

For weeks, the White House had insisted officials did not behave inappropriately but had declined to elaborate. But after Sestak won the nomination, Republicans renewed their questions of the administration and White House lawyers prepared to release a report they had been compiling for months.

At a White House news conference on Thursday, Obama told reporters a full accounting would be forthcoming.

"I can assure the public that nothing improper took place," he said.

The accounting came Friday, as the public turned its attention to the Memorial Day weekend instead of politics. Both parties often release unfavorable information during times when many Americans are focused elsewhere.

Two top Democrats — party chief Tim Kaine and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the party's second-ranking leader in the Senate — said during the week that the White House and Sestak needed to address the questions. So, too, did Sestak's Republican challenger in Pennsylvania, former Rep. Pat Toomey.