WASHINGTON -- Just before 7 tonight, the limousines will begin lining up at the Washington Hilton, disgorging the nation's most powerful Democrats -- along with lobbyists, donors and corporate heavies who are paying $1,500 for a seat at the dinner table and a chance to mingle.
Although Bill Clinton charged in the 1992 presidential campaign that "American politics is being held hostage by big money interests" and congressional Democrats are pushing a campaign finance reform bill, critics say that tonight's dinner typifies business as usual in the capital.
The beneficiaries are the Democratic Party's two congressional campaign committees. Last year's dinner netted $1.3 million; organizers hope to equal that this time.
The legislation Congress is considering, which would restrict campaign spending, would not ban fund-raisers like the Hilton affair. But critics say that tonight's spectacle raises doubts about the sincerity of the party's effort to reform campaign financing.
"This is just another example of the dishonesty and the hypocrisy of official Washington and the Democratic Party in particular," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the private, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. "They talk about cleaning up the process out of one side of their mouth, and then they raise money out of the other."
President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore will speak tonight. And such party leaders as Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland will attend.
"How can the president look the leadership straight in the face when he's out raising money in the same old way from the same old people?" said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, another private watchdog.
The Democrats insist there is nothing questionable about the Hilton dinner.
"The president has been a strong advocate for campaign finance reform, and he has made that one of his top priorities," said Ginny Terzano, deputy White House press secretary. "At the same time, until the rules are changed, Democrats have to be on a competitive and level playing field and must raise money for their campaigns."
"The Republicans also have fund-raising dinners," noted Ken Klein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is splitting the proceeds from tonight's event with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In June, Republican campaign committees raised $4 million at a dinner at the Washington Convention Center.
What is unseemly about tonight's dinner, said Mr. Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity, is that the corporate guests are buying more than a $1,500 ticket. The fear is that politicians who are so cozy with special interests will be inclined to favor those interests when they vote on legislation.
"They're buying access," Mr. Lewis said of the guests.
With Congress considering major issues such as health care reform, Mr. Lewis says, "special interests need access in a big way."
Tonight's guest list reads like a Who's Who of the Washington establishment -- people who put a premium on access to powerful politicians. James Lake, an aide to the last two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, will be there. An influential adviser to interests ranging from Mitsubishi Electronics to the California Prune Board, Mr. Lake is a guest of another of his clients, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Like the Democratic officials, Mr. Lake sees nothing objectionable about the dinner. "This doesn't buy access," he said. "Most members of Congress don't even know who is there."
"It might open doors for consideration," Mr. Lake allows, but he insists "there is no quid pro quo. Whether the Chicago Mercantile Exchange contributes or not, they will get into the offices of members from Illinois or Chicago because they are constituents."
Another big donor is the employee political action committee of Northrop Corp., which does billions of dollars in business with the Pentagon. Northrop is spending more than $10,000 for seven seats tonight, according to a spokesman, Loye Miller, and will bring several congressional staffers as guests.
Like many big companies, Northrop attends dinners on behalf of both Republicans and Democrats. Such events, Mr. Miller said, "give us the opportunity to show our support for the party's fund-raising committees. It's also useful to have the opportunity to talk to staffers and members of Congress."
The bill awaiting final passage in Congress would still allow wealthy contributors like Northrop's employee PAC to donate up to $15,000 a year to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Individual donors could still give up to $20,000.
But the legislation would seek to limit campaign spending by offering candidates incentives to curb spending and would restrict the amount candidates can accept from PACs. The Senate version seeks to ban PACs outright but, acknowledging constitutional objections, has a fallback provision merely to limit PAC donations to candidates.