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Union Fees Dispute Threatens Finance Reform (Sept. 30)

Lott Sets Test on Labor Issue as Campaign Fund Bill Tactic

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 1997; Page A04

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) moved yesterday to frame the debate over campaign finance reform on Republican terms by assuring an early vote on a contentious labor-related proposal that Democrats have threatened to filibuster.

Rather than introducing an alternative to a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Lott seeks to add a provision that would require unions to get written approval from workers before using their dues or fees for political purposes.

Then Lott used his powers as majority leader to assure that the labor amendment comes to a vote before any others, meaning the first key test will be on a provision that has support among Republicans who are also sympathetic to the McCain-Feingold effort.

Democrats, who benefit far more than Republicans from organized labor's political spending, have vehemently opposed the proposal and characterized it as a "poison pill" aimed at defeating the entire bill and making it appear that it died because of Democratic opposition.

But Lott and other Republican foes of the McCain-Feingold bill described the initiative, which they have dubbed the "Payroll Protection Act," as "fundamental" to any reform effort. "No worker should be forced to pay for politics they don't support," said Lott, who denied that his proposal was aimed at torpedoing campaign finance reform.

While agreeing with the substance of Lott's proposal, McCain said it should be debated separately from his campaign bill, which would ban unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties and limit other sources of special-interest spending on campaigns.

McCain noted that his bill would codify a Supreme Court decision requiring unions to inform nonmembers that they can get refunds for fees used for political purposes, calling it a "good first step." But Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.) argued that this would provide only "after-the-fact" protection to nonunion workers. Campaign contributions must be "made voluntary for all Americans," he argued.

Several senators said the vote on Lott's proposal, tentatively planned for early next week, could be close. A Democratic spokesman said all 45 Senate Democrats plan to vote against it, but several key Republicans were noncommittal.

For instance, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), one of three GOP co-sponsors of the McCain-Feingold bill, said she supports Lott's proposal as well as the bill and "it's not entirely clear whether I can have both." She said she wants to explore possibilities for compromise and determine whether Lott's amendment would actually kill the bill.

Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) acknowledged that Republicans could win this year but vowed to revive the issue next year – an election year – if they do. "This issue is not going to go away," he said. "If we get beaten somehow this session, my expectation is you're going to see it offered as an amendment to many, many, many, many bills next year."

Meanwhile, 81 former members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, signed a letter endorsing "meaningful bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation." They included former House minority leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), husband of ex-senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker (R-Kan.), who is working with former vice president Walter F. Mondale to boost support for reform.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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