Bush Wins Backing To Deny
Energy Records To Congress

By Adam Entous

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush won the backing of Republican leaders on Tuesday in seeking to deny congressional investigators access to records critics say could show the role played by Enron Corp. in crafting an energy plan favorable to the now bankrupt company.
Support from House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Republican leader Trent Lott will increase pressure on the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, to back away from its unprecedented threat to take the administration to court to secure the documents on contacts between the White House's energy task force and Enron, the president's biggest financial backer in the 2000 campaign.
The GAO has said it would gauge congressional support before acting.
"I think it's proprietary information," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "If any elected member of Congress went down to talk to the president, I think they would be shocked and chagrined to know that their information was being disseminated."
Lott, the minority leader from Mississippi, said congressional investigators were overstepping their authority and were not entitled to "get lists and the details and the notes of every private meeting of the executive branch."
Democrats and a few Republicans rallied behind the GAO's demand for records that could shed light on the role the bankrupt energy trading giant may have played in the development of the administration's energy plan, which critics say was packed with benefits for Enron.
"The GAO is on very solid ground. I think it is fair to say most American people support the effort," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.
Bush, who has sought to distance himself from the widening scandal, will not mention Enron by name in his State of the Union address later on Tuesday. Instead, White House officials said Bush would focus on the broader issue of protecting workers and shareholders by setting stricter accounting and corporate disclosure standards.
Representatives from Enron, which has made some $623,000 in contributions to Bush's campaigns since 1993, met six times last year with Vice President Dick Cheney or staff involved in crafting the White House energy plan. The last contact took place in October, days before Enron announced a charge against earnings, the first hint of its spectacular unraveling which culminated in the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Some lawmakers allege the White House energy plan incorporated many policies advocated by Enron or benefiting Enron. These include deregulation initiatives long promoted by Enron, support for trading in energy derivatives and proposals to facilitate natural gas projects.
The White House denies campaign contributions by Enron and its former chairman, Kenneth Lay, influenced the energy task force's deliberations and have accused lawmakers pursuing the matter of wasting taxpayers' money.
Bush, in a meeting with Congress leaders on Tuesday, defended his decision not to release task force records to the GAO, saying the disclosure would damage the White House's ability to solicit advice from outside experts.
Administration officials argue that the GAO does not have the legal authority to demand the documents and warned that their release would erode the powers of the presidency.
"The GAO continues to ask for information that oversteps their bounds," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters. He all but ruled out a compromise, saying no negotiations were under way to avert an unprecedented court fight with the GAO.
Headed by Comptroller General David Walker, the GAO counters that Congress has a right to information on the energy task force headed by Cheney because it was funded with taxpayers' money.
"If we did go to court, it would be the first time in history that we would have ever taken a federal entity or official to court," Walker said last week. "We need to try to do everything we can to avoid it. But we're committed to do our job."
Defending the GAO, Majority Leader Daschle said the investigators were "simply asking for who came and when they were there. They aren't asking for any release of confidential discussions with the president."
House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri saw the courts resolving the issue. "It's a legal question and it is an important question, and the courts will have to figure out who's right and who's wrong," he said.
A few Republicans broke ranks with the Bush on the issue. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said the White House records should be released, and offered some unsolicited advice to Bush and Cheney: "Can't you listen to people without making notes? ... My attitude is don't put everything on paper."

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