Senate tackles finance reform

McCain, Feingold seek bipartisan vote for `soft money' ban

First test ballot, 51-48

GOP leaders prefer to raise the limits on direct donations

March 20, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With a raucous start, the Senate began debate yesterday on whether and how to stem the flow of big money into federal campaigns, amid expectations that some rules will be changed for the first time in a quarter-century.

Barely winning a first test vote, Sens. John McCain and Russell D. Feingold held together a tenuous bipartisan group of senators who want to ban unrestricted "soft money" gifts to political parties, which they say circumvent limits on donations to candidates.

"It's time to end business as usual," McCain said.

Arrayed in opposition were Republican Senate leaders, loosely backed by President Bush, who would prefer to raise the limits on direct donations to candidates.

"We're having a jump ball, and let the games begin," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on the first day of what is expected to be two weeks of debate on the long-stalled proposal to overhaul the campaign finance system.

The outcome remains uncertain, in part because some Democrats who were originally believed to be supporters of the McCain-Feingold bill are now wavering.

On the first vote of sentiment, the Senate narrowly defeated a proposal to raise the limits on direct contributions to candidates who face contenders wealthy enough to spend unlimited sums of their own money.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said they feared that this proposal would prove unworkable. They had to persuade three colleagues - including Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat who spent $60 million of his own money to win his seat last year - to switch their votes and produce the 51-48 tally against the amendment. McCain agreed to consider a modified form of the so-called "millionaires" amendment that is expected to be offered today.

"I'm not sure that first vote said anything" about where the legislation is headed, "except that we're in for a long, hard two weeks," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who supports the McCain-Feingold measure but was tempted to vote against it in protest of the rigid rules set for debate.

McCain, who rode the momentum from his popular but unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign to force an early vote on his signature issue, opened yesterday's debate with a plea to senators to make a serious effort to compromise and not undermine the effort to reduce the influence of big donors in Washington.

"Real campaign finance reform will not cure all public cynicism about modern politics," McCain said. "Nor will it completely free politics from influence peddling or the appearance of it.

"But," he added, "I believe it will cause many Americans who are at present quite disaffected from the machinations of politics to begin to see that their elected officials value their reputations more than their incumbency."

The appeal was summarily dismissed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who has been McCain's nemesis on the campaign finance issue.

"I always say campaign reform ranks right up there with static cling as a chief concern of the American people," McConnell taunted as he congratulated McCain for his "tenacity" in pushing to the forefront of the agenda in a new presidency an issue "of very limited interest to the American people."

As a practical matter, McConnell said, there is little that the federal government can do to restrict political contributions without violating First Amendment guarantees of free speech.

A ban on `soft money'

Partly because of such concerns, the McCain-Feingold proposal has been pared back over the years to essentially its centerpiece: a ban on the soft money that pours into the coffers of political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Ostensibly, this money is for "party building" activities, such as voter registration, but the two major parties have found ways to spend that money to promote individual candidates.

This unregulated cash - $487 million during the 2000 campaign - raises questions about influence and the access it buys for the biggest donors. Collins called it "the most glaring loophole in the campaign system."

"Let us seize the opportunity to do this," Feingold said. "Either we rise to the occasion or we let the American people down again."

The McCain-Feingold measure also would restrict some types of political advertising during the last 60 days before an election.

McCain said he believes there is about a 60 percent chance that Congress will pass some sort of major campaign finance overhaul this year. But he and Feingold will have to hold their supporters together through an intense schedule of debate, with votes on amendments coming perhaps every three hours.

"It's probably going to be easier to predict who's going to win the NCAA [basketball] tournament," said McConnell, than the outcome of this "two weeks of a wild ride."

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