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THE IRAN--CONTRA HEARINGS : GOP Leaders Say Testimony Clears Reagan of Scandal

Times Staff Writer

Republican leaders in the House and Senate said Wednesday that President Reagan has been exonerated by former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter’s testimony that he did not tell the President about the diversion of Iranian arms proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras.

They predicted that the Iran-contra hearings would now begin to wind down, with the central issue of Reagan’s knowledge and credibility laid to rest.

The testimony marks “the beginning of the end” of the Administration’s political paralysis on Capitol Hill, said Senate Minority Whip Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. “It reaffirmed what the President has said all along and is an important step in the direction of getting on with other business in Congress.”

But Democrats sharply disagreed, saying Poindexter’s testimony--if true--further reinforced the picture of an Administration with little control over its own foreign policy.

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Some Predict Deterioration

They contended that Reagan’s relations with Congress, which Poindexter and other aides have admitted deceiving and circumventing during the secret Iran-contra operations, would only continue to deteriorate in the coming months and said his legislative program would be stymied.

” . . . Whether the President knew about the diversion or not, he comes off very poorly with Congress either way,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The two assessments reflect conflicting interpretations of how much the possible resolution of the issue of Reagan’s truthfulness might mean to the public and to his political influence in the remaining months of his term.

Many Republicans insist it was the sole overwhelming issue and believe he can now recover.

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) said Poindexter’s testimony showed “once and for all that there is no smoking gun in this matter. The President didn’t know (about the diversion of funds), it’s been backed up, and now we can lay this entire matter to rest.

“I think there will always be some partisan voices pushing this issue, as part of the 1988 (presidential elections), but the fact is, the American people now have the facts.”

‘Voices Need to Be Heard’

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Simpson said it will still be some time before the investigation of the scandal is completed, suggesting that “more voices need to be heard . . . like (Secretary of State) George Shultz, (Secretary of Defense) Caspar Weinberger and (Atty. Gen.) Ed Meese.”

But he expressed confidence that the last several weeks of hearings would “continue building the case” that the President “has been telling the truth all along, and that’s how this matter will come to an end.”

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) went even further, saying that Poindexter’s testimony had resolved the key question troubling Congress and signaled “the end of the Iran-contra hearings, for all practical purposes.

“Although there has been damage to the President, and there are cracks in the pedestal, the tide has begun to turn,” he said. “It began shifting with (Lt. Col. Oliver L.) North’s testimony, it continued today, and in several weeks there will be a real change around here in the way Congress perceives the President and works with him on a multitude of issues.”

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Lewis added: ". . . Timing is very much on the President’s side. Congress will soon be heading into an August recess, and when we come back in September, the President is going to be consumed with the issues of a peace process and arms control. So much of this is going to be in the past.”

Democratic leaders, however, charged that Poindexter’s testimony still damaged Reagan’s credibility and prevents any significant recovery.

They pointed to the former national security adviser’s statement, for example, that Reagan had signed a document in November, 1985, that clearly described the Iranian weapons sales as an arms-for-hostage deal--a charge that Reagan repeatedly denied.

“Nobody should think that he (Reagan) is out of the woods just because of this testimony,” said Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), the House Majority Leader. “The statement that the President clearly approved an arms-for-hostage transaction erodes his credibility.”

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Foley, who is a member of the House Iran-contra investigating committee, said: “The whole picture is one of an Administration out of control . . . one in which an unelected official like Poindexter can make a major foreign policy decision and not tell anyone, not even the President.

“I’m not saying Reagan is a lame duck, with no strength on Capitol Hill to push his programs through Congress. But he has a long way to go before he regains the political strength he once had here.”

Waxman said Poindexter’s testimony reinforced the Administration’s “utter contempt” for Congress in the making of foreign policy. Even if there is no “smoking gun” on the contra diversion, he added, “the great crime here is that we have officials accountable to no one formulating foreign policy and lying” to Congress.

“What’s worse, whether the President knew about the diversion, or if it turns out that he didn’t know?” said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio). “Either way, the answer compounds his problems. It doesn’t bode well for reasserting himself with Congress.”

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