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Clinton Concedes Mistakes But Defends Fund-raising

By John F. Harris
and Peter Baker
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

Saying that "mistakes were made" in the pursuit of campaign contributions, President Clinton told reporters Tuesday that a top financial regulator should not have been invited to a coffee arranged by the Democratic National Committee for bankers who contributed to the party.

At the same time, Clinton defended his role in helping his party raise record sums by granting donors access to him, saying these people got nothing for their money other than "a respectful hearing if they have some concern about the issues."

Clinton said most of the people contributing last year to both Democrats and Republicans - "way over 90 percent" - did so legally, and most of the abuses that exist would be corrected by a bipartisan campaign-finance bill he has endorsed.

"So there is no pattern and practice here of trying to push our system over the brink into corruption," Clinton said at a 55-minute news conference dominated by the fund-raising issue. "What happens is there's a race to get as much money as you can to keep from being buried by the other people and to make sure you get your own message out. And, at the edges, errors are made, and when they're made, they need to be confessed and we need to assume responsibility for them. And that's what I'm trying to do up here today."

Clinton for the most part left unspecified the errors he had in mind, and his use of the passive-voice "mistakes were made" phrasing left responsibility unassigned. He did say it was a mistake to have Eugene Ludwig, the comptroller of the currency, at a White House coffee for bankers because "regulators should not come to meetings that have any kind of political sponsorship."

On other topics, Clinton said he is disappointed about the lack of improvement in China's human-rights record, but defended his overall strategy of engagement and cooperation with the Asian power. He said he was confident that "in the end" the Saudi Arabian government will provide full cooperation to U.S. officials in the investigation of last year's Khobar Towers bombing.

Clinton touted several proposals for increased education spending he said will be in the budget plan he releases next week. A proposed 25 percent increase in Pell grants for poor students will "open the doors of college education wider than ever before," he said.

On the budget, Clinton said he was optimistic that even Republicans who are critical of specific portions of his spending plan will not dismiss it out of hand. He said he is willing to discuss GOP ideas for cutting capital-gains taxes, since it is such a high priority for them, and likewise added that he would consider charging higher premiums on wealthier Medicare beneficiaries. He pleaded with Republicans to show similar open-mindedness on his priorities, including restoring full welfare benefits for legal immigrants.

"I want to keep our powder dry and want them to keep their powder dry," Clinton said, adding: "And then what we need to do is to meet each other in good faith. This and all other issues can best be resolved by an early attempt to work through to a balanced-budget agreement."

While Clinton was striking an upbeat tone on the budget, he was regularly put on the defensive over the fund-raising controversy.

He bristled when asked if he had any explanation why the Indonesia-based Lippo Group, whose associates were connected to many of the improper DNC contributions, hired his close friend, former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, shortly before he went to prison for embezzlement.

Hubbell has refused to tell Congress why the Lippo Group put him on retainer after he resigned from the Justice Department; Republicans have questioned whether the money was intended to encourage Hubbell not to cooperate with investigations into the Whitewater affair.

After first saying that no one at the White House knew Hubbell had been hired by Lippo, White House press secretary Michael McCurry corrected himself last week to say that Clinton's closest aide, White House deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey, was aware of Hubbell's hiring shortly after it happened.

But Clinton said "categorically" that no one at the White House knew beforehand, and dismissed that there had been any attempt to buy Hubbell's silence. "I can't imagine who could have ever arranged to do something improper like that and no one around here know about it," he said. "To the best of my recollection, I didn't know anything about his having that job until I read about it in the press."