After three weeks of passionate debate on the complex issue of campaign finance reform, the smoke has finally started to clear. We have come to understand where the battle lines are drawn. The real issue is whether candidates for the highest offices of public trust should compete on the basis of ideas, issues, and qualifications or on the basis of which candidate can raise the most money.

In the beginning rounds of debate, opposition to acting on S.2, the comprehensive campaign finance reform bill before the Senate, seemed to center around the notion that public financing was an unacceptable way to enforce a voluntary system of spending limits. It has now become more evident that a number of opponents are in fact philosophically opposed to any limit on the amount of money candidates can spend in getting elected.

Many senators engaged in the current debate may not remember that in 1974, when Congress set up the public financing system for presidential campaigns, it also set mandatory spending limits for House and Senate candidates. Even 13 years ago, when the average cost of a winning Senate campaign was in the moderate range of a half-million dollars, Congress acted to put the reins on what it saw as the growing problem of candidates' spending more time raising campaign dollars than debating the issues.

But in the 1976 landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court found that: (1) Congress cannot set mandatory spending limits, and (2) if Congress sets voluntary limits, it must provide some inducement, as the presidential system does with partial public financing, to encourage compliance with the limits.

Many of the sponsors of S.2, including myself, have had reservations about public financing of campaigns. Because of the court's decision, however, we included partial public financing only as a means to obtain voluntary spending limits. It is a reasonable price to pay to restore a system of grass-roots democracy. It would help us return to a time when a candidate solicited support from home-state contributors instead of from Washington-based PACs, spent time debating issues rather than on developing a fund-raising strategy, and stood on his record and qualifications rather than on mounds of campaign cash.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd and I have sent a strong signal to opponents of S.2 that if public funding is the source of their opposition, we will meet them more than halfway. We offered a compromise amendment that would have reduced the maximum amount of public funds to not more than 24 percent of the total spending allowed for each election cycle. Now a new package has been developed that provides effective voluntary spending limits with no direct public financing. It merits strong bipartisan support.

This proposal would offer significant benefits to those party nominees who accept voluntary spending limits. These benefits would include lower mailing rates and the "lowest unit rate" for broadcast advertising. Candidates who refused such limits would not get these benefits. In addition, candidates who refused limits would be required to place a disclaimer on all their advertising and materials indicating that they decline to accept spending limits.

Protection against negative attacks financed by "independent expenditures" would be available to participants in the form of matching funds to counter such attacks. This should serve as a strong deterrent to independent groups that may consider trying to exert influence on elections through expensive media campaigns.

Participating candidates whose opponents exceeded the spending limits would be eligible for offsetting funds from the voluntary tax checkoff. There would be no public financing of the funds raised and spent by the candidates within the limits. The only time public financing would be triggered is when a nonparticipating opponent spends more than the limit in an attempt to "buy" the election. It would be used solely as a standby mechanism to maintain sufficient leverage for compliance with spending limits. Potentially no public funds would be expended.

Further, the cost of a preferred mail rate could be covered by limiting the number of newsletters sent by members of Congress and by no longer providing lower mailing rates to all political parties.

In the bicentennial year of this country's independence, the average cost of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate was about $600,000. In this bicentennial year of our Constitution, 11 years later, that figure has grown fivefold to over $3 million. If current trends continue at the same rate, 12 years from now, when this year's graduating high school students are eligible to run for the Senate, the average cost could easily be $15 million. We must not allow this devastating projection to come true. Nor can we allow partisan bickering to keep Congress from acting in the national interest to protect the integrity of our election process.

As the debate continues on this reform proposal, I challenge its opponents to make their case that it is good for Congress to spend more and more time raising millions of campaign dollars; that it is good for challengers to be increasingly closed out of the system; that it is good for business and labor groups and their representatives to be increasingly victimized by escalating fund-raising requests; and finally, that it is good to allow even the appearance that the most important offices of public trust in our country are being placed on the auction block.

We must not settle for less than reform. The Senate has a rare opportunity to further the goal of political competition based on issues, ideas and qualifications, not on money, money and more money.

The writer is a Democratic senator from Oklahoma and principal sponsor of campaign finance legislation now before the Senate.