WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress are now using the campaign finance issue to demonstrate their special talent for political self-immolation.
By taking such an adamant position against reform in both the House and Senate, they have frittered away the high ground on the issue they enjoyed because of the investigations of fund-raising from the White House by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
It is another example of a pattern of behavior by these Republican leaders since they took control of Congress three years ago -- a pattern of allowing the president to seize the initiative on issues on which he might have been thrown onto the defensive.
jTC The classic case, of course, was the shutdown of the federal government in a budget showdown two years ago, an action that plagued Republicans all through the 1996 campaign.
It is fair to argue, as some Republican strategists do, that most voters aren't paying close attention to the controversy over campaign financing abuses. And it is equally valid to contend that many voters have little faith that reforms will prevent further abuses in the future.
But the Republicans are making a world-class mistake if they fail to recognize that there is a minority of voters for whom the issue is important and telling. Moreover, they are probably the kind of voters who swing from party to party and candidate to candidate on the basis of the issues they consider important.
These are the people to whom Mr. Clinton was appealing in his sudden burst of vociferous support for prompt action on reform of the system for financing campaigns.
Faced with the prospect of a special prosecutor, the president responded by threatening to hold Congress in session until the legislation was debated. He carried it off, moreover, while continuing to raise huge amounts of for his party.
Perhaps equally important, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle managed the extraordinary feat of persuading all 45 Democrats in the Senate to join in endorsing the McCain-Feingold bill that is the centerpiece of the debate.
As a practical matter, some of those Democrats are less than totally enamored of the reform measure.
And they understand that the chances of it being enacted as written have always been extremely remote. But, as a political gesture, the Daschle initiative forced Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to bring the question to the floor.
Mr. Lott and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich quickly established, however, that no serious reform is going to be approved.
Mr. Gingrich made a point of arguing publicly that there should be fewer, rather than more, restrictions on raising money.
The Senate Republicans taking the lead on the issue, Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Robert F. Bennett of Utah, took similar positions. Mr. Lott made it clear that allowing a debate didn't necessarily mean there would ever be an up or down vote on the bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Thus, the Republicans have put themselves in the position of being the obstructionists in the eyes of those voters for whom the issue is an important test of good intentions.
Mr. Lott declared that the White House pressure for action was a smoke screen intended to turn the public's attention from what he called the "appalling campaign finance practices that were so large a part of President Clinton's re-election effort."
And, at least to a large degree, he was right about that. But the operative point is that Bill Clinton is getting away with it, as he has in seizing the public relations advantage on many issues in the last three years of dealing with the opposition Congress.
The Republicans are also trying to torpedo the legislation by adding such "poison pill" amendments as one that would require union members to provide written permission before any part of their dues could be used for political campaigns. That is one the Democrats can hardly swallow when they are so dependent on the help of the AFL-CIO.
But the key provisions of the reform plans call for an end to the unregulated "soft money" that has been at the center of the Senate investigation detailing the gross excesses of the White House in 1995 and 1996. And that is something voters can understand.
What they also may understand, thanks to Messrs. Lott and Gingrich, is that the Republicans are dead set against reform. Once again, they seem determined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/01/97