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Senate Republicans sought Wednesday to link the White House to an illegal financing scheme that aided the election of Teamsters President Ron Carey but were forced to backpedal within hours, resulting in a rare apology to President Clinton.

"If you've got to eat any crow, or even half a crow, it is better to do it when it is warm than when it gets cold," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.

Thompson, chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign fund-raising practices, alleged during Wednesday's hearing that a Teamsters union consultant met privately in the White House with President Clinton and Clinton-Gore campaign officials around the time the illegal scheme was hatched.

Three former union consultants have pleaded guilty in New York to charges that they illegally diverted Teamsters union funds to Carey's re-election campaign. Court papers filed in connection with the case say the consultants and Democratic National Committee officials discussed a plan in which the Teamsters would contribute to Democratic campaigns in exchange for help from DNC officials in soliciting contributions for Carey's campaign. The papers do not indicate whether the plan ever was carried out.

The clear implication of Thompson's statement was that Clinton might have been aware of the scheme. But after the White House produced documents showing that Clinton had not met privately with the union consultant, Thompson said that he had made a mistake.

This wasn't the first time that Thompson was forced to back off allegations of illegal election activities. Thompson opened the Senate hearings in July charging that there was a foreign government plan to influence the 1996 elections with illegal campaign contributions. But he later said the committee had developed no information to support that claim.

The Teamsters flap highlighted the second day of testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee by Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff and a key figure in Clinton's re-election campaign.

Ickes told the committee that he knew nothing of the Teamsters scheme and said he doubted anyone in the White House or the DNC would have lent themselves to such an effort.

"We were literally littered with lawyers," he said.

Ickes was clearly spoiling for a fight when he entered the hearing room, telling reporters the proceedings were "little more than a taxpayer-financed game of 'gotcha' as payback for us winning the election."

"Let the games begin," Ickes said.

Ickes wrangled with Republican senators, frequently getting into shouting matches with several who peppered him with rapid-fire questions before he could finish his answers.

"Do I get the courtesy of answering?" he asked Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

"We are going to be very courteous," Cochran said.

Meanwhile, the House on Wednesday started its public hearings on campaign fund-raising abuses with a promise of a balanced inquiry and a hint of bombshell testimony about foreign money ties to Clinton's first presidential campaign.

"It appears that the seeds of today's scandals may have been planted as early as 1991," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

Burton said the committee will soon debate whether to grant immunity to a California couple who would testify about their role in funneling a $50,000 contribution from an unidentified foreigner to Clinton's 1992 campaign in exchange for Clinton's endorsement of a foreign politician.

In another development, Attorney General Janet Reno said today she was "mad" when she learned that the White House had belatedly discovered videotapes of Clinton's coffees and had not immediately informed her investigators.

She acknowledged the incident "strains somewhat" the department's relations with the White House.

Ms. Reno said she was angry on two counts. "Where the White House has a responsibility to produce documents, it's very, very frustrating when they are produced in a delayed fashion," she said. "And I also thought we should have been told immediately."

Nevertheless, Ms. Reno said the tapes her investigators have reviewed so far would not have changed her letter last Friday to House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill. She said then that there was no basis for invoking the independent counsel act to probe Clinton's dealings with large contributors at the coffees or during overnight stays in the Lincoln bedroom.

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