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Campaign Reform's Fate on Fence

By Guy Gugliotta and Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 3, 1997; Page A21

If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) expects the Senate to pass a campaign finance reform bill this year, he must find decisive support from a pool of about 15 Republican colleagues on one or more critical preliminary votes next week.

When asked whether he could sway enough of these fence-sitters, McCain said yesterday, "No doubt the odds are stacked against us." Interviews with most of the potential swing senators showed that the support, at this point, simply is not there.

Preparing for the worst, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) vowed yesterday that even if the bill is stopped next week, the Democrats will offer it "as an amendment to whatever piece of legislation comes before the body."

But no matter how many times the Democrats try to force a vote, the bill will never pass unless those pivotal Republicans have a change of heart.

The key Republicans, according to Senate sources following the bill, include moderates, senators sympathetic to campaign reform, senators running for reelection next year and senators who have sought support from traditional Democratic constituencies.

The first vote, likely to come on an amendment to curb labor union spending on elections, could be a cliffhanger. All 45 Democrats will oppose the measure as a "poison pill," but McCain and four other Republicans will have to join them in order to defeat it. Even Republicans who support the reform bill so far have refused to commit themselves on this vote.

If McCain and his supporters should manage to beat the amendment, they will then have to muster 60 senators to defeat a Republican filibuster in order to bring the legislation to a vote. That means 15 Republicans will have to join the Democrats, and thus far, prospects are dim. "My own sense is that we are far short," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), one of four Republican co-sponsors.

"I'm not even close," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), thought to be a potential supporter because of his long record of trying to reform Senate procedures. "I'm willing to look, but I haven't seen anything yet."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) succeeded in muddying the voting calculus Monday when he introduced the union amendment, a measure that virtually no Republican senator – even among those who favor the reform bill – wants to oppose.

"I find myself in a quandary," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), another co-sponsor of McCain's bill. The amendment is "good public policy," but Democrats "say it's a killer amendment," she added. "At the end of the day, I want both" the amendment and the bill.

At present this seems impossible. The amendment would forbid unions to use regular membership dues to finance political activities unless individual members specifically authorize it in advance. The reform bill has a provision that applies only to non-union members who can request a refund for the portion of their fees used by the union for political purposes.

This is a considerable difference, and for Democrats, beneficiaries of the vast majority of union political expenditures in 1996, the Lott amendment is unpalatable – "the definition of a `poison pill,' " said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), McCain's co-author. "This is an intentional effort to kill campaign finance reform."

But while Collins and others may recognize the Lott amendment's disruptive nature, McCain is the only Republican who so far has said he will vote against it. Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), another GOP co-sponsor, is undecided, and Specter, a moderate running for reelection in pro-labor Pennsylvania next year, was noncommittal.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), another moderate thought to be able to provide a decisive vote, said she will support the Lott amendment, but will try to work out a compromise before "partisan positions harden." Yesterday Snowe met with Collins, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), and staffers for Specter and Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) to discuss a compromise, but reached no conclusions, aides said. Snowe has proposed extending the requirement for prior approval of political spending to all membership organizations "ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club."

But interviews made clear that in a few short days the Lott amendment had its intended effect of hardening partisan positions substantially, particularly among Republicans who had been battered by union money during the last election.

"It's like a drive-by shooting," said freshman Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) of union involvement. Unions paid for most of $1 million in campaign ads run on behalf of his opponent in a period of a few weeks in 1996, he said, "and no one was responsible for them to whom I could respond. Yes, I have strong feelings."

Smith, thought to be a swing vote because of Oregon's tradition of political moderation, regarded the Lott amendment as the "linchpin" of campaign finance reform. So did Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), whose brother Asa is a leading advocate of campaign finance reform in the House.

Hutchinson said his conversations with Asa had led him to contemplate a ban on the unregulated campaign funds known as "soft money," the centerpiece of the McCain-Feingold bill. But he noted that Republicans traditionally enjoy a substantial advantage in raising soft money, and they needed something like the Lott amendment before they would give up the edge: "Anything else is unilateral disarmament," he said.

Some senators said they had not made a final decision on the Lott amendment, among them Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.), running for reelection next year in a strong union state.

"I heard about `poison pills' just now," said D'Amato, giving no clue as to his intentions. "I have no problems with [the McCain-Feingold bill] as it relates to soft money, but I certainly resent legislation being characterized as `poison pills.' "

Others, like Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), a former campaign strategist for House Republicans, refused to comment. "I don't get the sense he's ready to discuss this with a reporter right now simply because he's been dealing with other things," Abraham's press secretary, Joe McMonigle, said.

Still, with the exception of Snowe, who will vote to break a Republican filibuster even if the Lott amendment passes, all of the swing senators interviewed said the Lott amendment had to pass first. Also in this camp was Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), a reform-minded newcomer, and probably Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), known for taking thoughtful positions on controversial subjects.

But, like Domenici, first-term Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said they opposed the bill regardless of the Lott amendment.

Meanwhile, Daschle's threat yesterday to keep pushing for action on McCain-Feingold this year appeared to signal a tougher stance by Democrats. Daschle said that if Lott blocks the bill and attempts to bring up other legislation, even if it is the huge transportation funding bill or President Clinton's proposal for "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, "we're going to amend it."

McCain said that if he couldn't get a vote on his full bill, he was "committed to getting an up-or-down vote on the soft money ban," which has stronger backing than some other parts of the bill.

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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