Senators Unwise to Call Hearings Over Elian?

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Hardly a year goes by without the Clinton administration being dragged before an irate Congress for hearings of one sort or another, and the President's valedictory year will be no exception. And like their predecessors, the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee announced Tuesday by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott into the INS raid that reunited Elian Gonzalez with his father may ultimately turn out to be of dubious political utility to their authors. With polling numbers showing a solid majority of Americans in support of the raid's outcome even if they're evenly divided over the methods used, the problem for the inquisitors is to determine their purpose and line of attack.

The senators, who included Florida senators Connie Mack, a Republican, and Bob Graham, a Democrat, would certainly find backing from such eminent liberal legal scholars as Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe if their purpose is to question the constitutionality of the process by which the raid on the Miami house was ordered, but that's unlikely to be enough for those legislators fired up by the campaign to keep Elian Gonzalez in the U.S. Attacking Janet Reno for ordering an armed intervention at a time when a negotiated solution was supposedly within reach would take the inquiry into tricky waters. "The feeling on the ground here was that neither the family nor the Cuban-American leadership had any intention of ever handing the boy over," says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett. "For weeks they'd essentially told the government that the only way to get the boy was to come and fetch him. To anyone watching this unfold over the last few weeks, the claim that a deal was near in the wee hours before the raid rings a little hollow."

Senator Lott's hearings, scheduled for the week after next, are set to hear testimony by the Miami Gonzalez family, mediators involved in last-minute negotiations and Justice Department and INS officials. The senator also remarked darkly that "Juan Miguel González would be a very interesting witness, to say the least." Indeed. But in their enthusiasm to find signs of hidden political manipulation in the Clinton administration's decision, the senators may be missing the fact that all sides of this family dispute have been subject to political manipulation. Putting some of the Miami relatives in a situation where they, too, might be cross-examined could turn those hearings into something a lot more complex than a simple attack on the Clinton administration's tactics. And that could leave the Senate presiding over something of a morass. They may also want to consider a Sunday NBC poll that found 62 percent of Americans believed a congressional inquiry would not be useful.