Senate to Debate Campaign Funds BillBy Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wed., Sept. 24, 1997; Page A01
Prodded by President Clinton yesterday, the Senate put aside its partisan bickering and agreed to bring up campaign finance legislation before Congress adjourns in November.
Armed with a letter from Clinton threatening to invoke a rarely used presidential power to keep Congress in session if Republicans refuse to allow sufficient time for debate, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) abandoned his opposition to an offer by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to bring up the bill but without setting a specific date.
"If any attempt is made to bring this bill up in a manner that would preclude sufficient time for debate, I will call on Congress to stay in session until all of the critical elements are fully considered," Clinton wrote to Republican and Democratic leaders.
This guarantees that the bill won't be squeezed into the final hours of the session in early November and trampled in a pre-adjournment rush, Daschle said. If time runs out, Clinton can simply prolong the session, he added.
The Constitution provides that the president "may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both houses, or either of them."
While Lott has refused to set a date, he has said repeatedly that he does not intend to wait until the last minute to bring up the bill. Other Republicans have said Lott has told them he plans to bring up the measure before the end of October.
With Lott and Daschle finally in grumpy agreement, the way was cleared for debate on a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) that includes a ban on unregulated "soft money" donations to political parties. Under the agreement, Republicans will have an opportunity to present an unspecified alternative that probably will include curbs on the use of union dues for political activities.
But the agreement reached yesterday still might not result in up-or-down votes on the competing measures. The possibility of a stalemating filibuster looms if, as expected, neither side can muster the 60 votes needed to force a final vote.
While Clinton did not spell out what would satisfy his conditions, White House aides said a vote was a minimum requirement. "We can't tell Congress what to do," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "Our Constitution doesn't work that way. But we can keep them here until there's an adequate time for members of the Senate to be recorded yea or nay on the measure."
McCurry and other Clinton aides later hedged, however, suggesting that any vote such as a vote to prolong a filibuster would be sufficient to put lawmakers on the record. In the absence of a bill, some aides said, the White House would settle for attacking Republicans as pawns of big-money interests in next year's congressional elections.
Clinton set the stage for this in his letter. "Any attempts to attach amendments that would make it unpalatable to one party or another are nothing less than attempts to defeat campaign finance reform," he said. "And a vote to filibuster this measure is nothing short of a vote to maintain the system that favors special interests over the public good."
Clinton's letter allowed both Senate leaders to save face and avoid further embarrassment prompted by their angry and inconclusive showdown Friday over scheduling the bill. But Lott was clearly peeved at Clinton's threat and countered with a veiled warning of his own. "The president has lots of conferences, legislation, appropriations and fast-track [trade authority] that he wants to get through. Threats don't serve him very well," he told reporters after receiving but before reading Clinton's letter.
Presidents have often threatened to keep Congress in session past its target date for adjournment or haul it back after lawmakers go home but have not exercised their constitutional power to do so since Harry S. Truman summoned the "Do-Nothing" 80th Congress back into session in 1948.
"We all know the president can call Congress into session all it wants. He can't make them act," McCain said in supporting Lott's position. Reformers need serious negotiations between the parties, not "letters from the president of the United States," he added.
Also yesterday, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee began its effort to draw attention to the broader issues of campaign finance reform. After weeks of grilling witnesses about alleged misdeeds during the 1996 campaign, the committee settled in for a scholarly discussion of how better to control the influence of big money in American politics.
Two of Washington's most familiar commentators, Thomas E. Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, advocated their own proposal to ban soft money while increasing the limits on contributions of "hard money" that go directly into a candidate's campaign.
They also cautioned that no amount of legislation will eliminate the influence of money in politics. "We will never solve this problem, but we can manage it better," Mann said. "We have to keep after it."
Before they testified, Mann and Ornstein had to wait more than an hour as committee members made a new round of statements that included partisan sparring between Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) and the panel's ranking Democrat, Sen. John Glenn (Ohio). And their testimony was cut short after only about an hour when another partisan Senate dispute unrelated to the hearing forced an abrupt adjournment of the meeting.
Sounding somewhat defensive, Thompson said suggestions that the committee had ended the investigative phase of its deliberations are "not true."
"We could hardly go through what this country has gone through the last several months, we could hardly have hearings, without considering legislation," Thompson said.
Glenn warned that under the existing campaign financing system, "the potential for corruption is enormous. At some point we're no longer a democracy but a plutocracy a government by and for the rich."
Glenn then cited the support of Senate Majority Leader Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) for an amendment to an appropriations measure, later overturned, that would have meant $50 billion for the tobacco industry, a major political contributor.
"I guess we know that the scandal we've been dealing with here is a Republican scandal," Thompson replied sarcastically.
The Mann and Ornstein testimony was cut short under an obscure Senate rule that says that, while the Senate is in session, committees need the unanimous consent of all senators to meet for more than two hours at that time. Protesting GOP handling of several issues, Minority Leader Daschle invoked the "two-hour rule" but attempted to exempt the Governmental Affairs and Foreign Relations committees. But Lott said the Democrats could not pick and choose which committees could meet for more than two hours, forcing all Senate panels to adjourn for the day.
Staff writers Peter Baker and Edward Walsh contributed to this report.
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