White House lawyers and House leaders forged an agreement Thursday that opens the way for President Clinton to release notes of a Nov. 5, 1993, meeting of presidential lawyers that has been portrayed as a pivotal event in the Whitewater saga.
White House officials said the notes would be made public soon, perhaps as early as today, ending a constitutional confrontation between the legislative and executive branches.
The breakthrough came in a meeting between White House counsel Jack Quinn and the chairmen of two House committees that have been looking into the Whitewater affair. It means that the Senate will not pursue a court suit authorized Wednesday by a vote of 51 to 45.
Meanwhile, Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr declared that while his investigation is likely to continue for at least another year, he expects the most important facts to be made public before the presidential election next November.
The dispute involving the issue of attorney-client privilege began recently when a Senate Whitewater investigating committee headed by Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) subpoenaed the notes on grounds that they would shed light on an alleged Whitewater cover-up.
Republicans are looking for evidence that the president's aides, seeking to protect their boss, conspired to obstruct several government investigations related to the Clintons' investment in the mid-1970s in the Whitewater land venture in Arkansas.
D'Amato said he expects the notes will show that White House aides attending the meeting improperly passed along confidential government information to the president's private lawyers. If the New York Republican is right, the notes would also contradict the sworn testimony of former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum.
For his part, Clinton insisted that he is eager to make the notes public because they do not disclose any illegal activity by White House officials. Nevertheless, the president also asserted that the notes are protected by attorney-client privilege and thus he refused to release them until the Senate, the House and Starr agreed that they would not view it as a general waiver of attorney-client privilege covering other Whitewater-related documents.
Even after Starr and the Senate committee reached agreement with the White House on this issue, Chairmen Jim Leach (R-Iowa) of the Housing Banking Committee and William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.) of the House Government Operations Committee refused to capitulate. As Leach and Clinger saw it, the notes were not covered by attorney-client privilege because some of the lawyers in the meeting were not officially representing Clinton on this matter.
In the pact negotiated Thursday by Leach, Clinger and Quinn, the House and the White House essentially agreed to disagree on the issue of attorney-client privilege. Since Leach and Clinger do not recognize that these notes are protected by attorney-client privilege, they said, they will not view the release of them as a waiver of that principle.
Essentially, this means that if a similar dispute arises in the future, Thursday's agreement sets no new precedent.
The divergent views of the two sides were apparent in the statements they made when the meeting broke up.
"It is my view," said Leach, "that whatever the difference between the executive branch and the Congress on the seriousness of the underlying Whitewater allegations, a constitutional confrontation on the documents issue was thoroughly unwarranted," Leach said.
To which Quinn replied: "No one has backed down from any of their asserted rights. The president will maintain his right to a confidential relationship with his attorneys."
Starr, who was appointed to take charge of a Whitewater probe in August 1994 expressed regret that his investigation of the Whitewater affair will not be completed until 1997. He said in a televised interview he "would have liked to have seen this completely wrapped before an election year" but "the legal process is not necessarily a short one."
He added: "Will the critical issues be addressed, will the facts be out far in advance of the election? My prediction is it will, they will."
Starr declined to answer the question of whether his investigation had turned up any evidence of wrongdoing by the president or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in connection with their investment in an Ozarks resort community known as Whitewater.
"Obviously any allegation involving the president or the first lady is serious, and that's what ultimately the Whitewater investigation is, I think, all about," Starr said.