Setback for Clinton despite poll boost

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in Washington

In a double setback for President Bill Clinton, the Republican-controlled Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to set up a special committee to hold new hearings into the Whitewater affair, while his Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, became the third cabinet-level official of the Administration to face a special counsel's examination of his private business dealings.

The two developments, coming within an hour of each other, came as a dash of reality for the White House, basking in a presidential approval rating of almost 60 per cent and a poll published yesterday showing Mr Clinton narrowly beating Bob Dole, the Republican front-runner, in a theoretical election match-up. Only two months ago Mr Dole won a similar contest by seven full points. The new Whitewater hearings, spearheaded by Alfonse D'Amato, the Banking Committee chairman and an arch foe of Mr Clinton, will draw on new material unearthed by the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, and focus both on allegations of government interference in the probe of Madison Guaranty Bank of Little Rock, Arkansas, and events surrounding the July 1993 suicide of Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel.

Worse still perhaps is the timing, whereby the committee has until 29 February next year to complete its work.

Such reminders of his "character problem," in hearings probably carried live on national television, are the last thing Mr Clinton needs at the very moment his 1996 re-election campaign moves into high gear.