A dream scheme to blame the other guys when campaign-finance reform fails

September 15, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In President Clinton's latest vow to fight for )) campaign-finance reform this year, he warned that if Republican opponents try to block it by filibuster as they have done in past years, ''we intend to see that it happens in the full glare of public light.''

There's no doubt he will live up to his word, because nothing would better serve his political purposes at a time when he, Vice President Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee all are under fire for their eye-popping fund-raising excesses in the 1996 election cycle.

Such a Republican filibuster would provide Clinton & Co. a most welcome diversion from the congressional hearings on campaign fund-raising that have dominated the domestic headlines and television newscasts around the country for most of this summer.

Except for a few days when the Republicans were under the Senate committee's microscope for fund-raising through a now-defunct front organization for the Republican National Committee, the Democrats -- and especially Mr. Gore -- have borne the brunt of the bad publicity.

While the hearings haven't seemed to hurt the president much -- his favorable rating is at a comfortable 59 percent in the latest Los Angeles Times poll -- the same can't be said of the vice president. The same survey found that only 34 percent have a ''favorable impression'' of him.

Lip service for reform

The legislation that Mr. Clinton says he will support is sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, but the bipartisanship pretty much stops there. Mr. Clinton has given campaign-finance reform lip service before, but over nearly five years has never pushed for it. The question is whether he really will now, or just maneuver to generate an unpopular Republican filibuster.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle has reported that all 45 Senate Democrats are lined up behind the McCain-Feingold bill, as well as three Republicans whom he hasn't named. That would leave the supporters of the bill two votes short of what would be needed to bring it to the Senate floor, with Vice President Gore breaking a tie.

If that step were achieved, the opponents would be in a strong position to filibuster the bill to death, because 15 more Republicans would have to switch to break the talkathon. Still, in the opinion of Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a new reform-advocacy group, the public pressure for reform generated by the hearings offers a chance for negotiation, especially if President Clinton really fights for it.

But his track record on such reform, Mr. Wertheimer says, doesn't offer any proof that he will.

''I don't think they can do nothing,'' he says, ''particularly with the Republicans' guns blazing about the problem in the hearings.'' That fact, he says, can undermine the opposition led by Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senator No of campaign-finance reform.

"Soft" money ban

The McCain-Feingold bill among other things would ban ''soft'' money contributions to the parties -- unregulated funds ostensibly for party-building, voter turnout and the like -- of the sort that has been the main focus of the Senate hearings. Some changes regarding soft money, if not outright banning, could be the result of negotiations, Mr. Wertheimer says.

President Clinton and the Democrats obviously would argue during a filibuster that they are the real reformers despite the Republicans' focus on the high-profile Democratic renting out of the Lincoln Bedroom and other schemes.

Long before Mr. Clinton promised to draw ''the full glare of public light'' onto any GOP filibuster against campaign-finance reform, it was being predicted from both sides of the Senate aisle that such reform would be a non-starter this year. Even if it is stymied again, however, simply making the fight and forcing a filibuster can serve the Democrats by triggering a demonstration of Republican obstructionism.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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