- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says the Senate has a "commitment to have hearings" on the government's armed seizure of Elian Gonzalez, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch says his panel may not hold such hearings if "they're not justified."

The two Republican senators appeared on separate political talk shows yesterday and were questioned about the committee's announcement Friday that it was indefinitely postponing the hearings, which had been slated to begin this week.

Some Democrats in Congress, as well as some pundits, have charged that Republicans on the committee have been scared off by polls that show nearly two-thirds of Americans support the government's armed seizure of Elian.

An NBC poll, released yesterday, found that 62 percent of Americans oppose congressional hearings to investigate the government's actions in reuniting Elian with his father, compared with 30 percent who support hearings to air the controversy.

At least one Democrat, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," believes there should be hearings. "The American people deserve to have a full historic record of what happened," he said.

Mr. Graham stressed that there are other Senate Democrats who share his concerns about having heavily armed federal agents raiding a private home at night and seizing a frightened 6-year-old. The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol removed Elian from the Miami home of great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez on April 22.

At a meeting Mr. Lott called early last week to try to get answers from Miss Reno, "there were about as many Democrats raising questions about what had happened as there were Republicans," Mr. Graham said.

Both Mr. Lott, who appeared on "Fox News Sunday," and Mr. Hatch, who also was on "Meet the Press," indicated the Senate plans to investigate the matter.

"As a matter of fact, we've been asked to hold an inquiry by the leadership of the Senate, and the purpose of that is to get to the bottom of it and see whether there was … an excessive use of force in violation of law and whether the laws were observed, especially the Fourth Amendment, [which protects] against unreasonable searches and seizures in our homes," Mr. Hatch said.

The Utah Republican said the Judiciary Committee "intends" to hold hearings "if the inquiry justifies them." But he said the panel needs to see documents and e-mails it has requested from the Justice Department.

"We need to get all of that before we make a determination whether to go forward or not, and I intend to get that," Mr. Hatch told NBC.

Asked if this means there might not be hearings, he said, "If they're not justified, I guess there won't be."

But Mr. Hatch said the hardball tactics the government used to reunite Elian with his father "have really frightened a lot of Americans" and caused them to ask deep questions about their rights.

"Can this happen to any American family at any time when the government or the attorney general just takes it upon herself to say, 'This is the way the law's going to be enforced whether it's right or wrong?' " he asked.

On Fox, Mr. Lott said he has repeatedly tried and failed to get a satisfactory answer from Miss Reno as to "why it was necessary to use force of that magnitude at a time when negotiations were apparently seriously under way."

"I think that Congress has to, at least, look at the institutional questions about what happened there. Was it a legal act? I think there's serious question about that. Even [Harvard law professor] Laurence Tribe, who is not exactly your basic conservative Republican, raised serious questions about that," said Mr. Lott.

He said he recognizes there is a "real feeling of fatigue in this whole matter" and a desire by many "to get it over with."

"That's not good, either," Mr. Lott said, adding, "We don't intend to have a long, protracted set of hearings."

The Judiciary Committee, he said, would hold "relatively tight hearings and try to get some answers … to fundamental questions … and then move on."

Asked if he can guarantee there will be hearings, the Republican leader said: "We have a commitment to have the hearings. But it is hard to go forward with hearings when the basic documents you requested have not been received."

Nevertheless, he said later he believes the documents will be forthcoming.

Regarding poll figures, Mr. Lott said: "We don't make those decisions on the basis of polls. I don't think we should shirk our responsibility, even if people indicate they don't want" Congress to investigate.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told "Meet the Press": "I doubt there will be hearings. There shouldn't be hearings. My good friend, Orrin Hatch, is the only man in America who can sit there with a straight face and say that [Republicans] really want to go forward with hearings.

"These hearings were a bad idea," said Mr. Leahy.

The Vermont Democrat also denied Republican assertions that they still need documents from the Justice Department before they can proceed. "All the documents are here. All the documents are available," Mr. Leahy said on NBC.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she's convinced the law was followed by Miss Reno and others involved in the pre-dawn raid.

If there are hearings, Mrs. Feinstein said, they should focus on the content of the immigration law itself and "whether there are injustices deep within" the process today that adversely affect people from many different countries.

Mr. Leahy agreed with her. "Those are the kinds of hearings we should be looking at, but not political hearings. This has been too politicized. It's been too partisan," he said.

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