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A Marriage on the Hill?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Tuesday, September 16, 1997; Page A17


Welcome to Washington's Big Disconnect. Laboring away on one part of Capitol Hill is an investigating committee demonstrating that something is badly defective about the way politicians raise money for their campaigns. But on the part of Capitol Hill where laws are passed, there's nothing – yet.

Republicans vent daily about the abuses of President Clinton's 1996 campaign, with special reference to Vice President Al Gore, the Republicans' likeliest opponent for the presidency in three years. Most Democrats defend the behavior of their party leaders and, where they can't, muddy up Republican attacks by asking for clearer evidence that what Democrats did in amassing cash differs sharply from what Republicans did.

But at the end of this week, the Democrats came up with their most brilliant defensive move yet: offense. All 45 Democratic senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pledging to vote for a campaign reform bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). They challenged Lott to let it come to a vote. Those 45, plus three Republicans who already support the bill – McCain and Sens. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) – put its supporters only two votes short of a tie in the 100-member Senate.

There are delightful ironies here. Note that one of the three reformist Republicans is the same Fred Thompson who chairs the investigating committee that is so tormenting Al Gore. Note, too, that in the event of a tie, the person who would break it in favor of reform is the vice president of the United States.

The president was only too pleased to praise the Senate Democrats' initiative in his Saturday radio address. He thereby signaled his ever tightening alliance with Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, and he obviously relished the chance to talk about campaign money without having to mention the recent fund-raising unpleasantness of 1996. Assume that the Democrats are playing politics here. Assume further that Senate passage of the bill would not guarantee victory in the House, where Democrats as well as Republicans have doubts about it. You can even assume, because it's true, that some Democrats who signed that letter are less than fully committed to the bill they're publicly supporting.

The challenge thrown down by Senate Democrats was nonetheless effective because it could force the Republican majority to choose. One person who will have to choose is Thompson himself. A committed reformer, Thompson has been telling Republicans that their hunt for Democratic corruption would be more credible, and perhaps more effective, if they were to come out strongly for reforming the laws that made the corruption easier.

If Thompson stands firmly with McCain, he will create one powerful pole within his party. The other pole is represented by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as committed as any member of Congress against the reforms McCain and Feingold support. The chances for changing the law will rest with the rank-and-file Republicans who will have to choose. Do they stand with Thompson and McCain? Or with McConnell and his allies?

McCain and Feingold intend to make that choice as pointed as they can in a strategy they will outline over the coming week. They want their own bill to come to a vote. It would ban the unlimited "soft money" contributions you've been hearing so much about and also provide free and cheap television time as an incentive for candidates to live by various spending and contribution limits.

But they are also willing to have a vote on a narrower set of amendments that will be harder to oppose – the soft money ban, combined with stronger disclosure laws and limits on "issue advocacy" ads that have become a disguised way for interest groups to pour thousands of extra dollars into individual campaigns. Republicans will end up having to be for something, and Democrats who harbor private doubts about reform will be smoked out.

But McConnell is nothing if not resourceful. The Senate's filibuster rules mean he can force reformers to come up with 60 votes to get anything passed. His basic strategy will be delay, the enemy of reform in what looks to be a short congressional session. His backup positions include efforts to legalize existing practices cast as a way of regulating them more effectively, and some "poison pill" proposals designed to split the reform forces. McCain and Feingold are prepared to support some restrictions on organized labor, but a bill too heavily anti-labor will drive away Democrats. And if McConnell extracts too many concessions from McCain and Feingold, many reformers will denounce the resulting product.

Will the investigating and legislating wings of Capitol Hill come together? The senator in the best position to preside over the marriage is Fred Thompson.


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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