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Campaign Bill Debate Turns Personal on McCain

Bennett and McConnell,TWP
Sens. Bennett (left) and McConnell talk about campaign finance reform during a press conference, Thursday. (The Post)  

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  • Profile:
    Sen. John McCain

  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 15, 1999; Page A4

    Senate debate over campaign finance legislation opened on an angry, personal note yesterday as Republican foes of the bill challenged Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a GOP presidential contender, to back up his charges that special-interest money is corrupting politics.

    Even though the proposal to tighten fund-raising laws again appears headed for defeat, the sharpness of the clash signaled both anger at McCain for showcasing the issue and at least some uncertainty over the bill's fate, stemming in part from new tactics employed by its advocates.

    Instead of pushing the kind of broad bill that has been repeatedly thwarted by Republican delaying tactics, McCain and other sponsors have fashioned a narrower measure aimed at cutting off the millions of dollars of unregulated cash that flows through parties each election cycle.

    Proponents are taking a gamble that amendments to strengthen the bill will be offered during five days of debate and votes on the bill, enhancing its chances of winning the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster, which has killed previous campaign finance bills. But mischievous or divisive amendments could also weigh it down and drive away supporters. In any case, both sides were feeling their way over new terrain, reaching early for the strategic high ground.

    Going on the offensive from the start, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) demanded that McCain identify those who have been corrupted by campaign contributions, implicitly questioning his case that money buys influence on Capitol Hill.

    "The question is, who is corrupted?" asked McConnell, who has been waging a decade-long fight against campaign finance bills that he regards as a threat to free-speech rights, political participation and the GOP's customary fund-raising advantage. "How can there be corruption unless someone is corrupted? . . . You can't say the gang is corrupt but none of the gangsters are."

    McCain stood his ground, insisting in his opening statement that everyone in politics has been corrupted by a system that "is nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

    "Who is corrupted by this system?" he asked. "All of us are corrupted."

    At issue is the legislation that McCain is cosponsoring with Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), with support of all 45 Democrats and at least eight Republicans, to ban unregulated "soft money" donations to parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

    This provision was included in a broader bill approved last month by the House but defeated twice last year in the Senate, when sponsors fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to end a GOP filibuster, a parliamentary device to kill legislation through delaying tactics.

    To pick up more Republican support, McCain and his allies dropped a provision to regulate issue advertising by outside groups. Such ads are often used late in a campaign to promote or defeat specific candidates, and proposals to limit them have drawn strong criticism on free-speech grounds. One Republican, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.), has signed on to the bill as a result.

    But in a letter to Senate leaders, Clinton endorsed the soft-money ban and urged restoration of the other provisions, including the issue advertising restrictions. "The Senate now has a rare and fleeting opportunity to act. The American people are watching," he said.

    The sharpest exchange in yesterday's debate came when Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) rose to take personal umbrage at an entry on McCain's presidential campaign Web site that listed a $2.2 million sewer project in Utah as an example of pork barrel spending that is "directly related" to the rise in soft-money donations.

    Bennett said he would readily "plead guilty" to winning the money for Utah but challenged McCain to document any soft money that may have influenced him.

    McCain did not do so. "I did not accuse him [Bennett] of being corrupt, so no apology or withdrawal [of the Web comment] is warranted," he responded.

    On the floor and later at a news conference, McConnell and Bennett said they were challenging McCain because he had "demeaned" his colleagues and the Senate itself and should be held to account. McCain had a different explanation. He said he thought they were trying to take the offensive both to divert attention from the substance of his bill and "because we're closer to success than we were before."

    At the end of the exchange, McCain accepted an amendment from McConnell changing Senate rules to require members to report "credible information" about corruption to the ethics committee. Because of an obscure Senate rule, this would raise the bar for cutting off a filibuster from 60 votes to 67 votes. But McConnell said he had no intention of imposing a 67-vote test and would offer the proposal as a separate measure.

    The Senate also approved, 77 to 20, an amendment by McCain to strengthen contribution reporting rules and require immediate electronic disclosure of contributions within three months of an election.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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