By Helen Dewar
Campaign finance reform returns to center stage in the Senate Monday, with its advocates battling the odds to break through formidable obstacles that have stymied action for the past two decades.
"It's uphill, but we're getting closer," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). She has been trying to work out an amendment to resolve a dispute that contributed to the collapse last year of a campaign finance bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).
According to many senators on both sides of the debate, little has occurred to change the likely outcome for the bill itself since last October, when its advocates could muster no more than 53 of the 60 votes needed to end a Republican-led filibuster against the measure. The McCain-Feingold bill would among other things ban "soft money" contributions to national political parties and curb the proliferation of last-minute "attack" ads that masquerade as issue-advocacy messages.
Supporters had hoped that months of hearings on funding abuses from the 1996 elections would develop a public groundswell to overcome a long-standing clash of partisan interests over campaign funding and the habitual reluctance of incumbents to tamper with the system that elected them.
Instead, a January poll by the Pew Research Center showed that campaign finance ranked 13th on a list of 14 major issues, just as it did the year before, according to center director Andrew Kohut. Voter confidence in Congress to write a fair and effective campaign law is declining, not rising, Kohut said.
Moreover, the unregulated cash that contributed to the 1996 abuses continues to flow into both parties. According to Common Cause, which backs campaign finance overhaul, national political party committees raised $67.4 million in unlimited soft money donations from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals last year exceeding even the $59.2 million raised the year before the 1996 presidential election. Last year Republicans raised $40.4 million compared with $27 million for the Democrats.
But even without pressure from back home, there are some new factors especially the Snowe-led effort to resolve the thorny issues of unregulated interest-group advertising and labor union spending on politics that give the reformers at least a glimmer of hope.
"It's a high hill but it's not unclimbable," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), who has been working with Republicans Snowe, James M. Jeffords (Vt.) and John H. Chafee (R.I.) to resolve the issue in a way that will attract more Republicans without undermining the bill's Democratic base of support.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading foe of the McCain-Feingold bill, sees only a sheer cliff, however. It will still take 60 votes to pass a bill, and "there are not 60 votes for any proposal," McConnell said.
Under a previous agreement, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) will open the debate Monday by offering an alternative, which he has not yet disclosed. The McCain-Feingold forces expect it will include the "paycheck protection" plan that Lott offered last year to require labor unions which have heavily supported Democratic candidates to obtain written permission of members before their dues can be used for political purposes. The Democrats have labeled this a "killer" provision because it would force them to oppose any legislation that included it.
The collision of the McCain-Feingold and Lott proposals produced dueling filibusters last October. Neither side was able to muster enough votes to force action on its own proposal.
To avoid a repetition of this and to address constitutional objections to the bill's provisions on outside advertising, Snowe's group is circulating a twofold proposal developed in concert with a group of outside campaign finance analysts led by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
First, it would require disclosure of major financing sources for any messages targeting specific candidates that are broadcast on radio or television within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election. Disclosure is not currently required for independent outside groups.
Second, it would bar unions and corporations from tapping their treasuries to fund such ads during those time periods. They can do so now as long as they do not specifically advocate or oppose election of a particular candidate.
A major question is whether Democrats will support the proposal. "It obviously wouldn't be our first choice but I'm not ready to say we're flatly opposed to it," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). But Levin said many Democrats may be attracted by it because it treats labor and corporate money the same.
If Snowe, Jeffords and Chafee reach agreement with the Democrats, there would be more than the simple majority required to defeat Lott's union dues proposal. There would also be more than enough votes to withstand efforts to kill McCain-Feingold directly.
The problem is that, on the key 60-vote test to end the Republican filibuster on McCain-Feingold, the compromise would not necessarily produce any new votes because Snowe, Jeffords and Chafee voted to halt the delaying tactics last year. The McCain-Feingold forces would have to shake loose other Republicans. Despite some privately expressed misgivings about opposing consideration of a reform proposal, other Republicans have held firm so far.
What the McCain-Feingold forces hope is that, if their bill gets a majority and Lott fails to muster one, "the dynamics change . . . and this could lead to negotiations" on legislation that could pass, as Feingold put it. And a breakthrough in the Senate could help unite disparate reform forces in the House where votes are planned in a month or two. As Levin sees it, there is another factor: a "strong undercurrent" of support for campaign finance overhaul in the country lurking just beneath the surface, ready to break through any time, possibly even before the November elections.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company