- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2002

The Senate's hearings into the collapse of Enron Corp. are causing such minimal political damage to the Bush administration that Democrats already are considering Plan B.
"They're not partisan problems," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, as he advocated new laws yesterday to protect pensions. "They're just employees whose hopes have been dashed."
Mr. Lieberman promised Senate hearings into the administration's role "when we're ready," but some Democrats acknowledge that the political aspect of the scandal has yet to gain traction.
"There's not too much sticking to the White House," conceded a top Senate Democratic aide. "When you have a president that's currently enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, you need to pick and choose your spots."
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released yesterday showed that 63 percent of respondents believe lost jobs and lost retirement savings are the most important issue in the Enron story. Four in five said Congress should investigate the administration's contacts with Enron executives, but two-thirds said Enron's problems involve Republicans and Democrats equally.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said last week that he believes it would be "very helpful for the Congress to broaden its inquiry" to corporate America's accounting practices in general.
Mr. Daschle met with Democratic committee chairmen on that question and reported "great interest" in pursuing a more general probe.
Although he said there are no immediate plans to shift the focus of various probes, his comments were interpreted by Republicans and some Democrats as acknowledgment that the hearings have not tarnished the White House and may even be backfiring on Democrats.
"You don't tug on Superman's cape," said Marshall Wittman, congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "There's confusion in the Democratic ranks between those who want to make it a political crusade against the Bush administration and those who want a more populist crusade against corporate excess."
Observers pointed to the example of Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, who last week denounced the Bush White House as a "cash-and-carry" government for Enron.
Other Democrats standing with Mr. Hollings didn't back him up, and he later backtracked on his accusation that White House Budget Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. had been on the payroll of Enron.
Mr. Hollings' call for a special prosecutor on Enron was met with virtual silence from others in his party.
A Senate Republican said, "They are trying to make it stick any way they can, and it's just not working."
When Senate Democrats announced early in January that they would investigate the Texas-based energy firm's bankruptcy, they promised to pursue every avenue, including the corporation's political ties to President Bush.
Enron was the 12th-largest donor to the Bush presidential campaign in 2000.
Mr. Lieberman, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said his panel intends to issue subpoenas soon for government agencies with watchdog responsibilities for Enron.
But in the meantime, he said, "it's wise to think about changing that process" of drawn-out congressional investigations and act more quickly to protect other pension plans from a similar fate.
Faced with Mr. Bush's wartime popularity, Democrats are increasingly looking at a more generic assault on corporate America as "a better debate on Democrats' terms," as one Democratic aide put it.
"The longer this goes on, the more it becomes obvious that it's a corporate, not a political, scandal," said Stephen Hess, a congressional analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Democratic pollster Mark Penn disagrees, saying he will release findings soon for the Democratic Leadership Council that show voters believe "very strongly" that the Bush administration has left unanswered questions about its ties to Enron.
"I think it's become a major national issue," Mr. Penn said. "Most voters don't think the Bush administration has told all about its contacts."
Mr. Wittman said an indictment by Democrats of corporate America "probably has more potential long-term payoff" than the waging of personal attacks against a popular president.
"Some within the Democratic Party may figure that out and use that quite effectively in the future," Mr. Wittman said. "It has the potential to be a long-running negative for the whole Republican Party."
While Enron did donate generously to certain Democrats, such as Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, the company overall has given 73 percent of its campaign contributions to Republicans since 1989.
In the CNN poll, 43 percent of respondents said the Bush administration is trying to cover up its contacts with Enron, while 47 percent said the administration is cooperating as much as possible in letting the public know about any connections with Enron.

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