Republicans fete party's largest contributors Donations of $175,000 entitle givers to rub elbows with GOP bigwigs


PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Just as Republicans in Washington are preparing to investigate fund-raising practices by Democrats, top Republicans gathered in Florida yesterday at a century-old, oceanfront luxury resort as a reward to their biggest contributors.

By giving $175,000 over four years to the Republican National Committee, more than 200 corporations and individuals earned invitations to the Italian Renaissance-style Breakers Hotel.

The chief draw: the chance to rub elbows with the nation's Republican leaders, including Sen. Trent Lott, the majority leader; House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Robert L. Livingston, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Party literature says Team 100 -- members' donations begin at $100,000 apiece -- will be treated to "the fullest package of membership benefits of any political organization."

They pay their own expenses at the Breakers, where nightly room rates are $295 to $2,100. Expenses for the members of Congress are picked up by the Republican National Committee -- in other words, by the committee's 1.2 million donors, including Team 100.

The three-day event featured an address to the contributors by Gingrich yesterday. Today, congressional leaders will take part in panel discussions on the party's legislative agenda. Tomorrow is for golf, tennis and boating.

"Access is the name of the game," said Kent Cooper of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money on politics. "In Palm Beach, you can get 20 minutes with someone, you can build relationships, offer a few comments about a piece of public policy."

Until now, criticism about money and political influence has been directed chiefly at the Democratic Party and President Clinton, who courted potential donors with coffee sessions at the White House.

At the same time, Republicans are preparing for a $6.5 million investigation into how Democrats raised money in the last election.

Although Republicans have not been accused of accepting the same kinds of questionable donations as the Democrats, critics say events such as this one demonstrate that the Republicans are selling access, too. Lacking the power of a White House setting, they control Congress and can provide talk time to their leaders.

"This evens out the party accountability," Cooper said.

Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said Democrats had succeeded in "confusing the issue" so that Republicans, who had done nothing illegal, were unfairly coming under the same scrutiny as Democrats.

Crawford said it was a misperception that events like the one here enabled people to buy access.

"If I were a party leader, I would go anywhere in the country to get together with 200 people who have a real commitment to building the party," she said.

At issue is so-called soft money -- unlimited, unregulated cash that can be given to the parties for party-building and get-out-the-vote activities.

The Republican National Committee raised $141.2 million in soft money in the 1995-96 election cycle, while the Democratic National Committee raised $122.3 million, a combined total that is nearly triple what the two parties raised four years ago.

Common Cause, which is lobbying to end soft-money contributions, released a list yesterday of the 208 corporations and individuals who gave the Republicans at least $100,000 in one year.

The top three were the Amway Corp. ($2.9 million), Philip Morris Cos. ($1.9 million) and RJR Nabisco ($1 million).

Other major donors, many of whom gave substantially to both parties, represent Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, real estate and telecommunications.

The Democratic National Committee has said it will limit its soft-money donations to $100,000 a year from an individual, corporation or union, but the Republicans have been noncommittal.

Neither party has included campaign finance reform on its agenda for Congress.

Ann McBride, the president of Common Cause, offered this assessment: "They are making a mistake if they believe that after the most scandalous election since Watergate, with millions spent on the '96 elections and the more and more blatant selling of access, that they can go home and say we didn't do anything.

"That won't fly this time."

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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