Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 1997; Page A01
Driven by last year's fund-raising scandals and fears of a voter backlash, the Senate yesterday opened its long-promised debate over campaign finance reform with rare passion and eloquence, sharply divided over what to do and sobered by warnings of the obstacles that lie ahead.
"Now is the moment when we can show the American people that we take courage from our convictions and not our campaign treasuries," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsor with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) of a bill that seeks to limit special-interest funding of campaigns, including banning unregulated "soft money" donations to parties.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded that the bill would trample on constitutional free-speech rights and discourage participation in politics. "People did not send us here to pass unconstitutional legislation. . . . They are not clamoring for us to push people out of the political process," he contended.
Rather than trampling on the Constitution, the bill simply would end an "incumbent protection system that's rapidly losing the faith of the American people," argued Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee that is investigating 1996 fund-raising abuses.
To the contrary, argued Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "The best way to help challengers is to allow [them] to raise more money than incumbents" by relaxing rather than tightening restrictions.
But some of the strongest and most revealing words came from Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who opposes the McCain-Feingold bill, and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who supports it.
In a blistering speech, Lott said the Senate has not reached a consensus for action and accused Democrats of using the debate as a smoke screen to divert attention from the "appalling campaign finance practices that were so large a part of President Clinton's reelection effort."
Noting Clinton was engaged yesterday in trying to raise $600,000 for Democrats in Houston, Lott scathingly described the president who supports the McCain-Feingold bill as "a case study of the problem, not an exemplar of the solution."
Lott dismissed the need for more restrictions on fund-raising, just as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) did Thursday, and signaled the McCain-Feingold bill, which would impose such curbs, may never reach a final vote.
"Perhaps the public good would best be served not by restricting donations to campaigns but by promoting them with . . . full, total and immediate disclosure," he said.
As for the prospects for action, he said, "We'll have a full debate, and we'll have some votes, maybe not the votes that everybody would like to have but critical votes assessing where the Senate is" an apparent reference to widespread speculation that this effort, like others before it, could end in a filibuster.
Daschle issued a warning of his own, taking aim at "poison pill" amendments, such as one that would require union members to give written permission in advance for use of their dues money for political purposes, that Lott and others plan to fight for. It had been left out of the McCain-Feingold bill because Democrats, counted on to provide the bulk of votes for the bill, would have rebelled.
Describing the debate as a "defining moment" after a decade of failed efforts at reform, Daschle said, "The American people are not dumb. . . . People who think they can kill this effort with political gamesmanship without anyone noticing are wrong. If we squander this opportunity, it will not go unnoticed."
Lott earlier had described the labor proposal as an "essential first step" in the reform effort, suggesting that anyone who did not back it was not a "legitimate participant in the campaign reform debate."
The debate is scheduled to continue through next week, with votes not beginning until the week of Oct. 6. Lott has not yet unveiled his list of counterproposals, but other sources said it surely will include the labor provision and possibly others dealing with foreign contributions, soliciting funds from government buildings and other practices that can be tied to the White House.
In addition to banning soft money, the McCain-Feingold bill would crack down on issue advertising that actually promotes candidates, strengthen disclosure requirements, limit party expenditures for candidates who spend more than $50,000 of their money and require unions to let nonmembers get refunds for agency-shop fees used for political purposes.
The bill has support of all 45 Senate Democrats and at least four Republicans, including Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) as well as McCain and Thompson, bringing it within striking distance of passage if it can get by a filibuster promised by McConnell. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster.
The McCain-Feingold forces first may have to fend off the labor proposal. Feingold said yesterday he thought the vote could be close. Some senators believe Lott would like nothing more than to see Democrats blocking the legislation because of a provision that would alienate their "big labor" constituency.
As the Senate opened debate, a bipartisan group of House members said they soon would introduce legislation to ban soft money, regulate independent expenditures and strengthen disclosure.
"We're confident that, given the chance, the House will support a balanced, fair, bipartisan campaign finance reform bill," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.). "Any reform has to be bipartisan in nature," said Rep. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.).
The group also made clear they disagree with Gingrich's idea of removing all limits on contributions. "The speaker's desire to vastly increase the total amount of money in the current system would be a disaster for democracy," Meehan said.
Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company