Campaign finance reform, finally?

January 24, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On Congress' first working day after the inauguration of the second President Bush, Sen. John McCain and six other Republican lawmakers showed up with Sen. Russell Feingold and two other Democrats to demonstrate their solidarity behind campaign finance reform.

Together, they are co-sponsors of the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate and the companion House bill offered by Republican Rep. Christopher Shays and Democrat Martin Meehan.

The two bills would, among other things, ban all unregulated or "soft money" contributions in federal elections.

The spectacle of seven Republicans leading the charge was hardly an early valentine to their new president. But Mr. McCain denied he and the other members of Mr. Bush's own party were going out of their way to cause him political grief in his first days in the White House.

Still, the bipartisan group was serving notice that it intended to push hard for an early floor debate and vote on the bill. After years of frustration, Mr. Feingold said, he was confident the advocates would have "a filibuster-proof" majority to pass it in the Senate.

In the last Congress, the simple majority achieved fell several votes short of the 60 needed to cut off a Republican talkathon. The House has already passed the Shays-Meehan version twice and should easily do so again.

The proponents believe that the net pickup of four Democratic Senate seats, along with the conversion of Republican Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi means the logjam has been broken. That Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, leader of the opposition to McCain-Feingold, has already said his side will not filibuster it this year indicates he knows he no longer has the votes to impose it.

Mr. McCain made no effort to hide his chagrin that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was once more dragging his heels, this time on grounds the new president deserved to have key elements of his own agenda considered first. Mr. McCain gruffly noted that the new Senate had done nothing since it convened on Jan. 5 and could easily have brought the bill up and disposed of it by then.

The Arizona senator, who featured campaign finance reform in his shooting-star of a campaign for president against Mr. Bush last winter, insisted he wouldn't think of intruding on Mr. Bush's legislative goals, for which the new president has claimed a mandate -- although running half a million popular votes behind his opponent on Nov. 7.

But, Mr. McCain said, "I also have a mandate," an obvious reference to the strong if insufficient support he received in the Republican primaries, "and I believe that mandate can be achieved." He noted that Mr. Bush had come out for campaign finance reform in the GOP primaries (after losing to Mr. McCain in New Hampshire).

But Mr. Bush hasn't backed a total ban on soft money, and he favors the so-called "paycheck protection" amendment -- requiring unions, in effect, to get approval of their members before spending their money on politics. Democrats call that scheme a "poison pill" intended only to kill the bill. It is one of many likely to be offered by Republicans for the same purpose.

The confidence the proponents now have is revealed because restrictions on so-called issue-advocacy advertising, abandoned in the Senate version the last time around in a vain hope of picking up more support, have been restored to the bill. They would apply to corporations and unions within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election.

But the principal target remains soft money -- which, according to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another Republican in the coalition -- nearly doubled from $262 million to $488 million over the past presidential election cycle. Mr. McCain said if the final bill disregards Mr. Bush's desire for the "paycheck protection" provision, he'll push for its enactment anyway.

The prospect, the reformers know, is for an avalanche of amendments hitting the Senate floor rather than a filibuster, and their task will be to hold their coalition together against this strategy to pick them off, either with "poison pills" they won't want to swallow, or enticements they will.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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