Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 1997; Page A01
In a critical initial test, Senate advocates of legislation to overhaul campaign finance laws fell well short of the votes they needed to move their bill forward yesterday, further reducing the slim chances that it can be enacted this year.
It was the Senate's first action this session on an issue that has plagued Congress for more than a decade and has taken on new urgency from the controversy over fund-raising abuses before the 1996 presidential elections. But by day's end, all that was achieved were two procedural tests of strength that failed to provide enough votes to advance the bill, definitively kill it or clearly assign blame for its failure.
Supporters vowed to push for more votes, beginning as soon as Thursday, though they may never get a clear up-or-down vote on the bill itself.
As expected, the legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) could not attract the 60 votes to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster, emboldening its foes to claim that it is finished.
"McCain-Feingold is dead," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), longtime leader of the opposition forces. It is "not going to pass ever," he claimed.
Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) claimed Democrats were "very close" to winning enough Republican votes to kill the Lott proposal, which would make it harder for labor unions to use dues money on politics. "Campaign finance choked a little, but it's not dead," Daschle added.
The votes followed a pep rally for the bill at the White House during which President Clinton called for a "fair vote" and made it clear he would blame Republicans if they succeeded in filibustering it to death.
"A vote for the filibuster is a vote to keep the `soft money' system," he said. "A vote for the filibuster is a vote for less disclosure, for weaker enforcement, for backdoor campaign spending by so-called independent groups. A vote for the filibuster is a vote to kill bipartisan campaign finance reform. And I hope and believe that will be a vote that will be difficult to explain to the American people."
Clinton brushed off a reporter's suggestion that it might be hard for people to see him as a champion of reform in light of his own fund-raising efforts and congressional inquiries into them. "It may be hard for you, but I don't think it's hard for people," he said. "You know, I'm not ashamed of the fact that I did the best I could within the present system. I knew we would be outspent badly in 1996 but we weren't outspent as badly as we would have been if I had laid around and done nothing."
In the first of the two back-to-back votes yesterday, Republicans fell eight votes short of the 60 required to force action on Lott's proposal, an initiative fiercely opposed by organized labor and its Democratic allies that would force unions to get advance written permission from members to spend any of their dues money for political purposes. The vote was 52 to 48 in favor of the proposal, with three Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition to it.
In the second vote, Democrats and their handful of Republican allies stalled seven votes short of the 60 votes necessary to force a vote on the bill itself, which would ban unlimited soft money donations to parties, restrict independent expenditures, discourage self-funding of campaigns by rich candidates and strengthen disclosure requirements. The vote was 53 to 47, with eight Republicans, mostly moderates, crossing the aisle to support action on the bill.
After the votes, Lott moved quickly to shelve the bill, accusing the Democrats of promoting "phony reform the kind that rigs the law in favor of one side or the other."
Angry Democrats, retorting that Republicans were employing "sleight-of-hand" tactics to block the Senate from exercising its will, vowed to continue fighting. They planned a Thursday replay of the two votes and promised, if necessary, to engage in trench warfare aimed at attaching the measure to any other bill that comes before the Senate this year.
For a few minutes during the Senate voting, it appeared that Lott might win on the vote to force action on his proposal only to see it die. But, for want of one vote, that did not happen.
With Lott appearing to lack a majority of votes to pass his amendment, Democrats decided during their closed-door weekly luncheon to give him the 60 votes needed to bring the issue to a head if they could be guaranteed enough Republican votes to defeat it. Unlike the other votes, it would take only a majority of the Senate or 50 votes, with Vice President Gore breading a tie to kill Lott's proposal.
Daschle believed he could count on the support of McCain along with Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) and engaged in a lengthy discussion at the back of the chamber with Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and James M. Jeffords (Vt.) before giving up and abandoning the strategy, at least for the time being.
Snowe and Jeffords had been pushing for a compromise that would have applied Lott's proposed restrictions on unions to corporations and volunteer groups such as the National Rifle Association and Sierra Club. "Obviously we couldn't reach an agreement at that point," Snowe said afterward.
Democrats said the discussions will continue in hopes of producing a majority to kill Lott's proposal during Thursday's votes. While killing Lott's proposal might not bring backers of the McCain-Feingold bill any closer to victory, it would clarify the debate and make it easier to apportion blame if the bill dies.
"There was always a question of who was going to be responsible for killing it," said Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.). "Now it's just a muddled mess."
In the House, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said he would continue to press House GOP leaders to schedule action on campaign legislation.
"I'd much rather face the wrath of my leadership and my colleagues now than face the wrath of my constituents next fall," he told reporters at a breakfast meeting. If the matter is not scheduled, he would join Democrats in using parliamentary procedures to interrupt work, Shays said.
Staff writers Peter Baker and John E. Yang contributed to this report.
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