The Smart Missile Aimed At Clinton

Will Chris Cox build a damning China-connection case?

For now, the Clinton Administration is breathing a sigh of relief over the House Judiciary Committee's inquiry into the Monica Mess. With the American public taking a very European approach to l'affaire Lewinsky, Illinois Representative Henry J. Hyde, the beefy, white-maned committee chairman, is battling Democratic charges that his probe is becoming a partisan food fight. But another serious threat to the Clinton Presidency may be emerging in the person of Christopher Cox, a lean, low-key Republican lawmaker from California.

A pragmatic conservative who has led fights in Congress to limit investor lawsuits and to keep the Internet tax-free, Cox heads a special panel that is exploring China's acquisition of sensitive U.S. technology. The results of the secret inquiry could be highly damaging to the White House. And unlike the sordid Lewinsky saga, Cox's investigation deals with Presidential policy: Did Clintonites and companies that contribute generously to Democrats hand over sophisticated U.S. knowhow that enhanced Beijing's military might?

LIMELIGHT. The inquiry stems from Clinton's February decision to allow Loral Space & Communications Ltd. to launch a satellite on a Chinese rocket despite Justice Dept. objections. Justice was probing alleged leaks of satellite technology to China by Loral and feared the O.K. could undermine any criminal case it might bring against the company. Another House panel is investigating whether the President approved the launch to help out Loral CEO Bernard L. Schwartz, the Democrats' top soft-money donor in '96. Cox's committee, which will report its findings in January, is focusing on the extent to which foreign policy and national security were compromised by the deal.

And it has expanded its scope to include possible illicit transfers to China of U.S. supercomputers, exotic materials, and manufacturing techniques as well as satellites. "We are focused not only on inadequacies in existing [export control] policy but also on violations...of policies that were supposed to be in place," says Cox.

The probe is sure to keep Cox, 45, in the limelight and help push him up the GOP leadership ladder from the No.5 job, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee. Cox is a natural choice to oversee the China-connection probe, which entails complex technical issues. With both a law degree and an MBA from Harvard, he is considered one of the best intellects in the House by Democrats and Republicans alike.

He's also one of the Hill's top techies. Cox, who represents Orange County, grasped the importance of the Information Age back in 1984, when he and his father founded a company that sold English-language versions of the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda. Cox, who ran the venture while practicing law in California, assigned and edited the work of translators scattered around the country via computer.

STIRRING THE POT. Today, while many colleagues are still having trouble finding their own Web sites, Cox is crafting legislation to keep the Internet free of red tape and taxes. Already a hero in Silicon Valley for championing a law to curb shareholder lawsuits, Cox is winning accolades in corporate circles for his latest crusade. "He's an incredibly smart guy who understands the issues in a very detailed, sophisticated way," says Jill Lesser, America Online Inc.'s director for law and public policy.

The courtly Cox took up the cause of securities litigation reform while specializing in corporate finance and venture-capital law at Latham & Watkins in Orange County from 1978 to 1986. The job convinced him that "the whole system of resolving disputes is broken. It's way too expensive, takes forever, and inflicts great pain on participants." In Congress, he led the fight to make it harder for investors to sue companies because their stock prices tanked. The bill became law in 1995--the only one enacted over Clinton's veto. In March, grateful execs contributed $34,400 to the Cox war chest via the Technology Network Political Action Committee, a conduit for high-tech companies.

Cox's new legal campaign: a push for "opt-in" class actions, which would require lawyers to seek permission from all individuals affected by such cases. He also wants to curb lawsuit damages for pain and suffering.

About the only issue on which he parts company with business is China. Angered last fall by Clinton's refusal to punish Beijing for human-rights abuses and missile sales to Pakistan, he fashioned a package of China sanctions. Although the penalties are mild and not all have become law, they rankled business lobbyists. "He's trying to stir the pot without moving our relationship with China forward," says Myron A. Brilliant of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Cox occasionally comes across as intellectually overbearing to fellow lawmakers. But his unabashed support for free markets, lower taxes, and smaller government plays well with voters in his well-heeled Southern California district, a bastion of Reaganism. In fact, Cox served a stint in Reagan's White House. While there, he helped draft the "long arm" statute that lets the U.S. government go after terrorists abroad. "We can thank his hard work that we have the ability to apprehend terrorists abroad and bring them back for trial," says former colleague Oliver L. North. With North on the hustings for him, Cox narrowly clinched his seat in '88. Since then, he has won reelection easily.

Despite his conservative credentials, Cox builds coalitions with Democrats. "There have been no disagreements we couldn't work out," says Representative Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the China panel's top Democrat.

On both Internet bills, he has teamed with liberal Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and worked closely with White House aide Ira C. Magaziner, a favorite GOP whipping boy. "Cox has done an excellent job of developing [the Internet Tax Freedom] bill and guiding it through difficult negotiations," says Magaziner.

But will Democrats still be praising Cox if his panel uncovers evidence that the White House compromised national security? If Cox manages to make a case against Clinton, the American electorate may not be as forgiving as they have been over a fling with an intern.

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