WASHINGTON -- In what has become an annual rite of futility, the Senate began to grapple with a new plan to overhaul campaign finance laws yesterday, pitting Democrats against Republicans in a clash with far-reaching political ramifications.
For the past six years, both sides have fought over proposals to halt the breathless growth of campaign expenditures and to reform the methods by which lawmakers raise campaign funds. All efforts have ended in stalemate.
The Democrats' latest contribution to the debate came yesterday, when they scaled back an earlier proposal to provide government funding to candidates who observe voluntary spending limits.
Whether the new package will change the outcome of this year's campaign finance debate is unclear. Democratic and Republican lawmakers cleaved along predictable party lines over whether or not it would.
"We have attempted to structure this proposal so that it is fair to Democrats and Republicans alike," said Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine.
"There's a Democratic approach and a Republican approach," countered Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "We're going to try to come together. I'm not sure it's possible, but we're going to try."
At the heart of the issue this year, as last, is whether or not government funds should be used to help defray the campaign costs of candidates. Since 1976, a $1 income tax check-off has provided funds for presidential campaigns as well as paying for the quadrennial political conventions of the two major parties. Democrats want that benefit to extend to congressional candidates who agree to observe pre-set spending limits on their campaigns.
For philosophical and political reasons, Republicans object. Campaign spending limits, they argue, tend to benefit incumbents, partly because challengers often have to spend more to overcome the free publicity incumbents enjoy. Since Democrats hold the majority in both the House and Senate, Republicans reason that Democrats would benefit most from campaign spending limits.
Republicans, for their part, would rather limit political activity by such organizations as labor unions -- which almost always work on behalf of Democratic candidates -- and to bolster party fund-raising mechanisms, a traditional GOP strength.
Under the terms of the Democrats' newest package, the government would pick up 20 percent of a candidate's total fall campaign costs through vouchers for discounted radio and television advertising time. Previous proposals had suggested 50 percent, and Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., said the change would reduce from $50 million to $25 million a year the public cost of financing Senate elections.
"That is something that could easily be handled without an increased burden on taxpayers," Mr. Boren said.
With that change, the "new" Democratic package is nearly identical to one passed 59-40 last year over Republican opposition. The House also passed a bill, but the session ended before two bodies could negotiate a single bill.
The Democratic package would also prohibit federal campaign contributions by special interest political action committees, or PACs, and would outlaw PACs run by members of Congress.
"Bundling" -- the compilation of donations on behalf of a candidate -- would also be rendered obsolete. Charles H. Keating Jr., the failed Phoenix S&L owner whose name labeled the premier political scandal of 1990, "bundled" thousands of dollars from industry colleagues on behalf of five senators who pleaded his case with federal bank regulators.