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Moderates To the Rescue?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 7, 1997; Page A17


Voters who elect moderate Republicans – especially ticket-splitting Democrats and Independents – have a set of expectations in mind. Moderate Republicans are seen as liking the free market but respecting government's role in regulating it. They are fiscally prudent but believe in spending, especially to help the poor.

But above all, moderate Republicans have been reformers who fought for clean government. The progressive Republican tradition, going back to Teddy Roosevelt and New York's Fiorello La Guardia, is one of opposition to bossism and corruption. Theodore Roosevelt was the original supporter of campaign finance reform.

Moderate Republicans in the Senate have to decide today whether upholding the Teddy Roosevelt tradition is more important to them than securing the favor of Trent Lott, the current Senate majority leader. A do-or-die vote will be cast on an amendment Lott has offered to the bipartisan campaign reform bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Say this for Lott: This Mississippi Republican is one shrewd legislator. Lott and most of the Republican leadership despise the McCain-Feingold bill. But after all the outrage they vented over the 1996 campaign abuses by the Democrats, Lott and his allies don't want to look as if they're blocking campaign reform.

So instead, Lott offered an amendment designed to make it impossible for most Democrats to support McCain-Feingold. The amendment would sharply restrict the political activities of labor unions.

This is an odd amendment coming from people who claim to worry that the McCain-Feingold restrictions would violate free speech rights. Could it be that they don't care much about the speech rights of labor leaders, only about everybody else's? It must be an accident that the unions were the Republicans' most aggressive foes in the 1996 elections.

Lott has made only one mistake so far: He has admitted that his amendment is designed to put the blame on Democrats for killing the campaign reform bill he wants dead. "I've set it up where they're going to be doing the filibustering," Lott told the Washington Times.

So if moderate Republicans who purport to support campaign reform let Lott's amendment go forward, they are voting for a setup. That's what McCain says, and McCain is a conservative who supports the principle of Lott's amendment. McCain noted in an interview that the existing McCain-Feingold bill already includes concessions from Democrats – on unions and other issues – and that Lott's proposal would upset its intricate bipartisan balance. "I can't be for it," he said referring to Lott's amendment, "because the Democrats have already given up things."

Lott has claimed having the 51 votes he needs to let his amendment go forward. All 45 Senate Democrats, plus McCain, are committed to voting against him. So Lott is counting on support from most of the moderate Republicans who have traditionally backed reform. The swing group includes Sens. John Chafee of Rhode Island, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Fred Thompson of Tennessee. Collins, a co-sponsor of McCain-Feingold, said yesterday she was sticking with McCain, and two other co-sponsors – Thompson and Specter – are expected to do the same.

This would leave McCain with 49 votes in the 100-member Senate, increasing the pressure on the rest of the nervous moderates. Snowe has suggested a compromise to extend the Lott amendment's restrictions to other groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club. Her proposal may raise even more constitutional questions than Lott's. But it led to a wave of new negotiations yesterday suggesting that the moderates know that they will pay a price with their voters if they simply go along with Lott.

The real issue was drawn back in Snowe's home state by the Portland Press Herald in an editorial last week: "While one can appreciate Snowe's desire to seek a compromise, her effort is counterproductive. Democrats will rightly find her proposal no more palatable than the original amendment. Its adoption is almost certain to kill campaign finance reform this year."

Republicans, says Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) have a decision to make: If they want their attacks on Democratic fund-raising abuses to have credibility, they need to stand for reform; otherwise voters will blame both parties equally. "The effect of the failure of our leadership to grab hold of this issue is to convince people to think: `Clinton has done some unethical things, but you're just as unethical.' "

Shays draws this lesson from the past: "When Republicans were having their problems with Watergate," he said in an interview, Democrats blamed not only the corruption of individuals but also a flawed campaign money system. "They changed the law," which, he says, is what Republicans should do now.

The moderate Republicans can preserve their party's credibility. Someday, Lott might even be grateful to them.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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