Campaign-finance fight is on

Senate to debate McCain plan as resistance grows

`Going to be tough'

March 19, 2001|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is perhaps the best chance in a generation to reduce the influence of big money in politics.

Today, the Senate begins its first serious campaign-finance debate in nearly a decade. Senators in both parties said there is a good prospect that some measure labeled "reform" will eventually win approval.

"A lot of people think we're going to pass something," said Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the driving force for change.

Far from clear, however, is what a Senate-passed measure might look like, how far it would go to alter the way campaigns are funded and whether it could significantly slow the flow of unlimited money into elections.

Most members of Congress oppose sweeping changes in campaign laws. Proposals such as public financing of congressional elections and free television time for candidates lack broad support and probably won't be part of any package.

The most far-reaching proposal under consideration has been promoted for years, without success, by McCain and his Democratic partner, Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin. It would bar wealthy individuals, businesses, trade associations and labor unions from donating millions of dollars in the unlimited, largely unregulated gifts known as "soft money."

In the 2000 campaign, a record-breaking total of more than $487 million in soft money was collected by the two major parties. Critics contend that these gifts buy unfair access and influence for big donors and introduce the threat of corruption into government.

McCain, using the personal popularity he gained during his unsuccessful presidential bid last year, forced a reluctant Senate leadership to schedule action on his campaign-finance plan this month. But as the debate has neared, resistance has grown.

The majority of Republicans, including President Bush, have long opposed McCain's plan for outlawing all soft money. Bush would allow wealthy individuals to continue giving unlimited amounts while banning corporate and union soft money.

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, author of a more modest alternative plan, contends that the McCain proposal would weaken the political parties by cutting off one of their biggest sources of money and give even greater influence to special-interest groups.

Hagel's plan would let soft-money contributors give as much as $60,000 a year and also would loosen other donation limits that haven't changed in the past quarter-century. Though McCain has sharply criticized the proposal because it would legitimize soft money, elements of it could become part of a final Senate measure.

Most Republicans prefer the Hagel plan, particularly the provisions to triple the ceiling on direct contributions to candidates and index them for inflation. Bush has seemed partial to Hagel's proposal, while stopping short of an endorsement that might make it harder for Democrats to support it.

One indication that the Hagel plan may be a growing threat to McCain's proposal was an attack on the measure last week by Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader. He labeled it the "Bush-Hagel" plan and warned that it was "a Trojan horse to defeat the McCain-Feingold bill."

But the alternative could be attractive to Democrats, who seem increasingly skittish about changing the rules of the game now.

A Pyrrhic victory

Some Democrats worry that outlawing soft money would give Republicans a big edge, because the Republican Party is less dependent on soft money as an overall source of funds than the Democrats are.

Last year, Democrats essentially matched Republicans in luring soft-money contributions for the first time. The five largest individual soft-money donors in the 2000 campaign, who gave more than $1 million each, were all Democratic contributors, according to FECInfo, a nonpartisan campaign-finance Web site.

Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, a previous supporter of the McCain-Feingold measure, reversed himself last week and said he would vote for the Hagel alternative instead. Other Democrats could follow.

Another source of Democratic nervousness: Organized labor, the party's most powerful interest group, is aggressively opposing the McCain-Feingold proposal.

Like a host of other interest groups across the ideological spectrum, labor objects to portions of the measure designed to limit the role of outside groups in elections. One provision would ban "issue ads" -- the television spots funded by corporations and unions that mention a candidate by name in the 60 days before an election.

"We have to make sure we have a level playing field," said Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, echoing fellow Democrats who expressed concern that changing the law could put their party at a disadvantage.

Among the proposed amendments that would kill Democratic support is one, supported by the White House, that would require labor unions to get permission from their members before they could use their dues for political activity.

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