Clinton insists on vote reforms President threatens to call special session of Congress over issue

September 24, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Under investigation for his own political fund-raising activity, President Clinton threatened yesterday to call Congress into a special session if Republican leaders block campaign finance reform legislation.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Clinton demanded that enough time be scheduled for debate on a sweeping campaign spending bill co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin.

"If any attempt is made to bring this bill up in a manner that would preclude sufficient time for debate," the president wrote, "I will call on Congress to stay in session until all of the critical elements are fully considered."

The president's threat generated suspicion among Republicans that he was trying to shift attention away from the scrutiny of his own efforts to solicit money from Democratic donors in 1996.

His remarks came as Attorney General Janet Reno is considering whether to seek a special prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising activities of both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Clinton's gambit yesterday was the latest effort by the White House to alter the national conversation on campaign finance abuses.

For a year, since their party's fund raising began attracting attention in the final weeks of the 1996 campaign, Democrats have asserted that the moral of the story is that each party is engaged in an ever-spiraling competition to raise huge sums, in which bending the law has become the norm -- and that reform legislation is sorely needed.

The Republican message is quite different. Perhaps the law needs tightening, they concede. But they argue that the Democratic National Committee, White House officials and the Clinton-Gore campaign systematically broke the laws already on the books and that those responsible should pay for their misdeeds.

"Bill Clinton and Al Gore give reform a bad name," said Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman. "Campaign finance reform was obviously not an important issue when Democrats controlled Congress during the first two years of their administration. Only now, when it is becoming clear that Bill Clinton and Al Gore decided to disregard existing campaign finance laws during the last election and have been caught, do they wrap themselves in the banner of reform."

Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle had complained last week that he feared Lott might schedule consideration of the McCain-Feingold bill for the last day of the 1997 session, leaving too little time for debate, amendments and passage.

But Lott said yesterday, after the president's letter arrived, that he never intended to do that. And last night, Lott issued a warning of his own to the White House.

"The president has a lot of issues that he would like for us to work with him on," the Mississippi senator told his colleagues on the Senate floor.

"We intend to do that. We do not intend to be threatened or intimidated on this or any other issue."

Even so, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has vowed to filibuster the McCain-Feingold bill if necessary.

The president made clear that if the bill is derailed, he intends to make sure the Republicans pay a political price.

"A vote to filibuster this measure is nothing short of a vote to maintain the system that favors special interests over the public good," Clinton wrote in his letter.

"For years, the special interests and their allies have filibustered reform. But this year, the American people will hold accountable those who vote to maintain the status quo."

The McCain-Feingold measure is embraced unanimously by Senate Democrats but is opposed by nearly all Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Democrats say they have scarcely enough votes to pass it and fear that the legislation could fall victim to one parliamentary device or another by its opponents.

The bill seeks to reduce the huge and growing influence of wealthy donors, who skirt traditional $1,000 limits on donations to individual candidates by giving whopping amounts, sometimes in excess of $100,000, to the parties -- which, in turn, funnel that money into individual campaigns.

This loophole, known as "soft money," has grown from being an irritant -- less than $10 million was raised this way in the 1980 presidential election -- to become the dominant force in national elections.

In 1996, the two parties raised $260 million this way, according to the watchdog group Common Cause.

McCain-Feingold includes provisions intended to curb that practice and to close other loopholes as well. These measures include: Barring the national parties from raising or spending soft money.

Tighting the loophole by which candidates skirt spending limits by having third parties air "issue ads," which are thinly disguised campaign ads that favor one candidate or attack another.

Requiring speedier disclosure of sources of contributions.

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