Boost for campaign finance reform Senate vote: Move by Clinton puts pressure on lawmakers to act on McCain-Feingold bill.

September 26, 1997

WHATEVER HIS MOTIVE, President Clinton's threat to keep the Senate in session until it debates and votes on a bill to curb abusive campaign financing practices seems to have had its desired effect. The way is now clear for action on a watered-down reform measure.

That is a remarkably positive advance for a proposal that had been shelved by Majority Leader Trent Lott. Still, resistance remains stiff, especially from the Republicans' champion of unlimited party fund-raising, Sen. Mitch McConnell. He has enlisted the help of potent conservative allies -- the Christian Coalition, National Right to Life Committee and National Rifle Association -- in opposing a reform bill.

No doubt, the president sought to get on the right side of the issue after troubling disclosures of Democratic Party practices in raising $123 million of unlimited ''soft'' money in 1996. (Republicans raised $138 million). A more plausible reason is the need to shift attention from Mr. Clinton's related legal woes.

Attorney General Janet Reno has begun a 30-day review of the president's role in telephoning campaign contributors from the White House. A never-enforced 114-year-old law bars fund-raising solicitations from federal offices. But the statute was aimed at protecting civil servants from political pressure, not at officials making calls to private campaign supporters.

Both Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are facing scrutiny for such telephone calls. Republicans are gleeful. But if Ms. Reno or a special prosecutor goes after the president or vice president for making fund-raising telephone calls on federal property, would any congressman feel secure? Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas once admitted he routinely made such calls from his office using a credit card (the same excuse proffered by Mr. Gore). Moreover, it is unclear what constitutes an illegal act. Merely talking with a potential donor? Asking for a contribution, even if no money is received?

This is murky legal terrain. Far clearer is the need to change existing campaign-finance laws. The McCain-Feingold bill, even in its watered-down form, would bar parties from raising unregulated, unlimited ''soft money.'' And it would mean quicker, more thorough disclosure of contributions and spending -- a crucial element in giving an early spotlight to egregious campaign-finance practices.

We urge Senator Lott to get behind passage of this bill. Neither party looks good as the squalid disclosures continue to unfold.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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