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Campaign Finance Still in Senate Limbo

By Helen Dewar and Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 20, 1997; Page A01

The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday abruptly suspended hearings on 1996 campaign finance abuses and turned its focus to the use of unregulated "soft money" as part of an orchestrated effort to force action on a bill banning soft money, only to have the plan bog down in a bitter partisan clash on the Senate floor.

The extraordinary day of maneuvering was an attempt by two of the big proponents of reform – Committee Chairman Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – to cut through the political underbrush and bring the issue before the Senate with some momentum behind it. But for the moment, they found themselves undercut by another episode of the partisan quarreling that has hamstrung the campaign finance debate for more than a decade.

The Senate furor erupted when Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed to schedule debate on a bipartisan bill to overhaul campaign funding laws before Congress adjourns for the year but did not include a specific date for debate to begin.

Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) angrily complained that he was blindsided by the offer and demanded that the bill be scheduled by Oct. 30 so it would not be jammed into final days of the session.

"This is an affront to the Democratic caucus, to me personally and [raises] questions about how sincerely the offer really is," Daschle fumed. Lott was being "his smooth self" and playing "right into the hands of the opponents of campaign finance reform."

If Daschle was surprised by the offer, he was the only one in town who was, retorted Lott. "If this is a sneak attack, then there hasn't been such a well-covered sneak attack since Pearl Harbor," he added.

Lott said he intended to bring the bill up in October, well before Congress's target date for adjournment at the end of the first or second week of November, but refused to be pinned down on a date, saying he had many legislative priorities to juggle in the session's waning days.

With that, the two leaders – who normally pride themselves on their cordial relations – went their separate ways and each side accused the other of playing political games, leaving the legislation in limbo.

McCain, the bill's chief Republican sponsor, missed the fracas but later weighed in on Lott's side. "I've always said it is clear that not everybody really wants campaign finance reform, and Senator Daschle showed that clearly today," he said in a telephone interview while changing planes in route to New Orleans. Lott had given his word that the bill would be brought up in October "and Senator Daschle knows that."

McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), the bill's other chief sponsor, expressed confidence that the dispute could be worked out, although it was not immediately clear how this might happen.

The bill, which includes a soft money ban but has been shorn of some other controversial provisions, appears headed for the Senate floor before the session's end in any case.

McCain, Feingold and their allies have vowed to try to attach their proposal to other legislation if Lott does not schedule it separately. But this could lead to a major disruption in Senate operations, and both sides were seeking agreement to bring it up on its own to keep this from happening.

While all 45 Democrats have said they support the legislation, it has strong opposition from within the GOP. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will force the bill's advocates to muster 60 votes in order to break a filibuster.

At the moment when tempers flared on the Senate floor, Michael Madigan, the Republican chief counsel for the often contentious Governmental Affairs Committee, was announcing a smooth bipartisan transition from investigation of the 1996 election to "public policy" hearings on the new reform proposal.

Madigan described the switch as "a bit of a change in our schedule," but committee sources said that public indifference, partisan rancor and repetitive evidence had exhausted many senators' enthusiasm for the investigatory probe.

"There is real fatigue among members, and a growing sense that the incredibly harsh words and the bitter partisanship is harmful to the institution," said Democratic spokesman Jim Jordan. "It's getting in the way of the rest of their job."

Madigan said the committee intended to resume its investigative hearings at a later time, but Democratic chief counsel Alan Baron said resumption of hearings was "still an open issue."

Madigan said he expected to tie up other "loose ends," including a possible grant of immunity to John Huang, a leading figure in the scandals, and a final evaluation of the influence of foreign money in the 1996 campaign.

Madigan said that Buddhist nuns granted immunity after a prolonged dispute with the Justice Department "would not need to testify," and gave no indication whether the committee would seek testimony from former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, White House aide Thomas F. "Mack" McClarty and other key administration officials.

During the next two weeks, Madigan said the committee will invite other lawmakers, policy specialists, public interest groups and academics to offer recommendations on campaign finance reform.

After that, Madigan said, the committee wants to hear from interest groups aligned with political parties during the 1996 elections. Many of these – identified with both Republicans and Democrats – have refused to comply with committee subpoenas they denounced in a letter as "overly broad, unduly burdensome and oppressive."

Rather than force a showdown, Madigan said the committee was negotiating other ways to get cooperation from the groups.

Lott's agreement to schedule the McCain-Feingold bill represented an about-face for the Republican leader, who until recently has balked at bringing it up, insisting that the committee finish its work first.

Lott's proposal would have allowed the Senate to consider the latest version of the bill, along with an unspecified Republican alternative, probably including strong curbs on use of labor union dues for political purposes that are likely to draw strong protests from Democrats.

McCain and Feingold dropped several especially contentious provisions, including stricter restrictions on fund-raising by political action committees (PACs) and incentives such as free television to encourage compliance with voluntary spending limits. The remaining key provisions of the bill would:

Ban soft money, raised by national parties from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions for "party-building" activities. Instead, all contributions would be subject to limits that now apply to "hard" money that is raised on behalf of candidates. While state parties could still raise soft money, they could not spend it on federal races.

Prevent soft money from being rechanneled into independent expenditures by drawing a line between issue advocacy and outright advocacy of a particular candidate, including a ban on using a candidate's name or likeness within 60 days of an election.

Require expanded and speedier disclosure of contributions and expenditures, including electronic filing, and impose stronger penalties for violations.

Codify an earlier Supreme Court decision requiring labor unions with contracts covering nonmembers that they can request and receive a refund for any portion of their fees that is used for political purposes. Republicans have been demanding a broader provision under which employees would have to give permission in advance for such use.

Make it more difficult for wealthy candidates to give or loan more than $50,000 to their own campaigns.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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