Soft money and the Senate

After the election of 2000, some Republicans might be more favorably inclined toward campaign finance reform.

Shifting battle lines on soft money

January 07, 2001|By PETER H. STONE

IN THE 2000 CAMPAIGN'S closing weeks, Democrats unleashed a powerful weapon that had been in short supply. With the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raking in a record $50 million in "soft money" in the 1999-2000 election cycle, the DSCC sponsored a barrage of issues ads that benefited Democratic challengers in such states as Delaware, Michigan, and Washington. The hard-hitting ads were instrumental in helping to create the 50-50 Senate split.

But the Democrats' astonishing soft-money haul, more than 5 1/2 times what the DSCC raised in 1995-1996, may have some ironic and unintended consequences. Advocates of campaign finance reform are increasingly optimistic that new members of Congress will make a difference in their crusade to ban soft money -- the centerpiece of the leading bipartisan reform bill.

Indeed, Senate backers of reform say they're just a vote or two shy of the 60 votes necessary to block an opposition filibuster. And some members of Congress and outside analysts say that several Republican moderates seem chastened by the DSCC's success through late-November in raising more soft money than its GOP counterpart, and are rethinking their opposition to campaign finance reform proposals.

"I think there's an increased willingness among Republican members to question party orthodoxy that soft money is a boon to Republicans and that limiting it or banning it will only hurt Republicans," says Trevor Potter, a Republican election law specialist who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

"Democrats raised a lot of soft money and were competitive in House and Senate races because of it," Potter said. "There's likely to be a very different dynamic in the Senate in terms of the leadership's ability to dictate the debate on campaign finance reform."

Soft money -- the unlimited and unregulated contributions that corporations, unions, and individuals are allowed to make to party committees for generic party-building activities such as issue ads and get-out-the-vote drives -- is expected to exceed $470 million in the last election cycle, compared with about $262 million in the 1995-1996 cycle.

Small wonder that Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the leading champion of changing the campaign finance system and banning party soft money, intends to bring his bipartisan bill up early and mount a blitzkrieg to pass it.

McCain, whose bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, says he has detected a new mood among a few longtime GOP foes.

The parties' pursuit of soft money, says McCain, is "completely without limit," and he has predicted that more scandals will result from the fast-escalating money chase.

On Thursday, McCain and Feingold hosted a press conference at which they proudly introduced a new GOP supporter of their bill, Sen. Thad Cochran, a prominent Mississippi conservative.

Before the press conference, McCain and other GOP senators met with independent pollster John Zogby who told them that campaign finance reform should be the party's number one agenda item.

Last year, the McCain-Feingold bill had the backing of all 46 of the Senate's Democrats and as many as 10 Republicans, but a filibuster blocked its enactment.

In the past two years, a bill similar to McCain's has passed the House. But several factors are expected to cloud the rosier outlook for reform.

Not surprisingly, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has long been an implacable and successful foe of curbing campaign spending, isn't about to give up without a battle royal. McConnell contends that if such a ban had been enacted before the recent elections, the GOP would have been hurt badly because outside interest groups that poured soft money into issue ads predominantly favored Democratic candidates.

"We'd certainly have lost control of the Senate without party soft money," says McConnell, who argues that the "overwhelming majority" of nonparty soft money is spent by unions on behalf of Democrats.

Furthermore, President-elect George W. Bush has publicly said he'd support a ban on union and corporate soft money, but opposes limiting individual contributions.

Bush and McConnell have stated that any reform package has to also limit the large sums that unions spend for political communications with their members and for get-out-the-vote efforts. Democrats, however, would probably fight such restrictions, which most analysts think are a deal breaker.

Despite such potential obstacles, several outside analysts and members of Congress who have tracked the debate over reform believe that the vote in Congress will be different this year if Democratic support for reform stays solid and a few GOP members come around.

Reform advocates are also banking on several factors to aid their fight, including increased public support for campaign finance reform. And they point out that McCain's own campaign for president underscored the appeal of campaign finance reform outside the Beltway.

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