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Campaign Finance Bill Gets Push From Clinton

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 1997; Page A06

With a boost from President Clinton, Senate sponsors of a bipartisan bill to overhaul campaign finance laws served formal notice yesterday they will move to force votes on the measure in September if Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) refuses to schedule it for action.

"Delay no longer serves any purpose. . . . The public has a right to have this issue debated," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the bill's chief Republican sponsor, in warning that he will seek to attach the bill to other legislation if necessary to assure consideration this year.

In a letter, Clinton said he "strongly supports" the idea of a September showdown. "Both political parties are engaged in an ever-escalating arms race for campaign funds," said the president, whose own reelection fund-raising is the principal focus of a Senate committee inquiry.

But efforts by McCain and others to come up with a compromise bill that can pass were complicated by a warning from Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) that Democrats will not take kindly to dropping spending limits and other provisions that have aroused some of the strongest opposition among Republicans.

Nor did Lott appear ready to schedule the legislation for Senate consideration. Asked if he was any closer to reaching an agreement with McCain on a time for Senate debate on the legislation, Lott grinned and said, "He [McCain] mentions it regularly."

The bill that McCain is co-sponsoring with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and others would ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties, outlaw or severely curtail fund-raising by political action committees (PACs) and set voluntary spending limits with incentives for compliance, including free television time. Similar legislation has also been introduced in the House. Both bills have been blocked so far by Republican leaders.

In hopes of jump-starting the process, some reform advocates have urged an incremental approach, starting with a ban on soft money and tighter disclosure requirements. A bipartisan group of House freshmen have adopted this approach, and McCain reiterated yesterday that he is open to such a move.

But Daschle, at a breakfast meeting with reporters, said Democrats are reluctant to abandon spending limits and other provisions aimed at curbing the flow of special-interest money into campaigns. "It would be very, very difficult for us to do that," he said.

In a series of floor speeches, McCain, Feingold and three other senators held the door open to compromise but made it clear they intended to force a showdown after Congress returns from its month-long August recess.

"We believe that we must begin the debate on campaign finance reform no later than the end of September," McCain said, "and therefore, if we cannot come to some agreement to bring the bill up freestanding, with an up or down vote on the bill itself, we will feel compelled to bring the bill to the floor by offering it as an amendment to some unrelated measure. This is not an approach we relish. But we realize that we may have no other choice."

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the bill's leading foe, welcomed moves to modify the bill but said they did not go far enough. The bill still "decimates the parties and leaves the unions free to operate as they always have," he said in an interview. "It's changed but it doesn't seem to be there yet."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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