Campaign finance reformers draw up new strategies Senate sponsors insist they won't let issue die without a vote

October 09, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senators seeking to overhaul campaign finance laws regrouped yesterday to map out a series of aggressive tactics designed to ram their legislation through Congress in the face of determined opposition from Republican leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott flatly declared the bill dead for this year. But its two champions in Congress made it clear they are not about to concede defeat.

"We don't intend to let the issue die," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has co-sponsored a bill outlawing huge, largely unregulated "soft-money" donations that are at the heart of the 1996 fund-raising scandals.

"The reports yesterday about the death of the bill are just dead wrong," added Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, in an interview. "I think we're at a very high level of momentum."

Their bill, known as McCain-Feingold, has the support of President Clinton and all 45 Senate Democrats, but only a handful of Republicans.

The measure was derailed Tuesday on two procedural roll calls, called "cloture" votes, that are necessary to preclude filibusters.

Today, the McCain-Feingold forces will call for two more such votes. They are hoping, against the odds, to garner help from two additional Republicans in an effort to bring the bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote.

"It's a long shot, but we're trying," said Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff. "If this doesn't work, we'll try something else. We'll come back and back and back on them until we get a vote."

If today's effort fails, McCain and Feingold said their next line of attack will be to attempt to attach their bill as an amendment to an essential spending bill. In this way, they hope to force their colleagues to vote on the legislation.

If that doesn't work, Feingold said, a third strategy would be to begin dismantling the bill and offering its provisions piecemeal as amendments to unrelated measures.

"Everything that happens here from now on will involve this issue," Feingold vowed.

From obscurity to spotlight

McCain-Feingold was once an obscure bill championed mainly by such groups as Common Cause, the self-styled citizens lobby.

Today, it has moved to the forefront in the debate dominating the Washington political stage: the influence of large political contributions and the skirting of limits on such donations by both parties.

Many of McCain's Republican colleagues say his efforts are misguided because his bill would shut off the spigot on the corporate donations that flow disproportionately to the GOP while doing too little to curb labor's assistance to Democrats.

Republicans also insist that the fight plays into the hands of Clinton and the Democrats.

These Republicans say that the Clinton White House didn't make revamping campaign finance law a priority in 1993 and 1994 when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Republican leaders also assert that Clinton's fervor for campaign finance reform seemed to correspond to the moment when questions began arising about the legality of his 1996 fund-raising activities.

"All of this is really a diversionary tactic," Lott said. "The Democrats don't really want this. The president clearly doesn't. What they want is to change the subject.

"The problem is not inadequate regulations or laws on the books with regard to campaigns and campaign contributions. The problem is the laws have been broken. And I think we should enforce the law before we start running off to change the laws."

Republicans this week reiterated their call for a special prosecutor after the White House belatedly turned over some 44 videotaped snippets of Clinton and 1995 and 1996 fund-raising coffees held inside the White House.

Diversionary tactic

But Clinton, speaking to reporters yesterday, threw the Republicans' argument back at them.

Their incessant demands for a special prosecutor to probe 1996 campaign finance abuses, he said, is itself a diversion -- an attempt to get voters to ignore their determination to kill campaign reform legislation.

"That is the real story lurking in the weeds," Clinton said. "I actually think it's probably pretty good strategy for those who are trying to kill campaign finance reform to talk about these [videotapes] of events in the White House, which were legal."

Clinton made his remarks as he embarked on for an all-day fund-raising trip to New Jersey and Pennsylvania to raise $2 million for the Democratic Party and its candidates.

But the president has insisted on his right -- his duty, even -- to raise "soft money" for his party unless and until the Republicans agree to legislation that would ban it.

The president defends his heavy-duty fund raising by pointing out that his party has offered the GOP a moratorium on accepting soft money while the legislation is pending -- and that the Republicans have refused. Time and again, his aides reiterate the White House line: "We won't unilaterally disarm."

Clinton seems to go out of his way to be defiant on this issue. Yesterday, for example, he appointed the third ambassador this week who was a big soft-money donor to the Democrats. Even his allies on campaign reform have trouble defending his actions.

"The president should not be going to soft-money events. It would help to lead by example," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause -- and someone who stood beside Clinton Tuesday at a Roosevelt Room ceremony to promote the McCain-Feingold bill. "He has the bully pulpit and he can play a very important role, so I wish that he weren't going."

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Pub Date: 10/09/97

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