The Democratic-controlled Senate, stymied by a Republican filibuster, yesterday abandoned efforts to win passage this year of legislation to tighten controls over congressional campaign financing and restrict spending for Senate races.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) shelved the measure after losing a seventh vote to impose cloture and end the GOP delaying tactics. The seventh vote set a record for the number of cloture votes on a single bill.
The vote was 51 to 44, nine short of the 60 necessary to shut off debate. Even with all 100 senators present, the Democrats would have been able to muster only 55 votes for cloture, having picked up two votes in the nearly four months of debate on the issue.
But Byrd vowed to resurrect the bill next year, warning the Senate that it faces a "scandal of tremendous proportions . . . a political AIDS virus" unless it moves soon to curb skyrocketing campaign spending and fund-raising abuses.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), cosponsor of the measure with Byrd, noted that the average cost of a successful Senate campaign rose from $600,000 to $3 million in the eight years he has been in the Senate and asked, "Are we going to wait till it costs $6 million or $9 million or $15 million?"
Republicans, contending that they were prepared to deal with serious abuses in fund-raising, responded that a compromise was possible if Democrats were willing to negotiate on key provisions, such as elimination of public financing to encourage candidates to accept spending ceilings.
Byrd said the Democrats had made significant progress on the issue, lining up a majority of the Senate as cosponsors of the measure. "Next year is an election year, and I think pressure will grow," he said.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, which has been lobbying for the bill, also contended the issue has been advanced in a couple of years from "zero . . . to majority support," standing now "within striking distance of success." He vowed to intensify grass-roots efforts on behalf of the measure, especially in the states of senators who have opposed the bill.
But abandonment of the effort gave the 46-member GOP minority a tactical victory in its effort to stall key items on the Democratic agenda by resorting to filibusters, which also have posed problems for arms control and spending measures.
The debate ended as it began four months ago, with both parties angling for political advantage over how a campaign revision measure would be framed. Democrats were pushing for spending ceilings that would help overcome the GOP's fund-raising edge in many races and Republicans were taking aim at political action committee (PAC) contributions and labor union activities that generally benefit Democrats.
With Boren's aid, Byrd made campaign finance revision a major goal of Senate Democrats despite its poor chances for passing the House, where contributions from PACs play a larger role in financing Democratic campaigns than they do in the Senate.
The bill the Democrats initially pushed would have provided public funding for campaigns of Senate candidates who voluntarily accept spending limits, leaving it up to the House to decide whether to apply the limits to its campaigns. For all congressional campaigns, it also would have limited the total amount of PAC contributions available to a candidate and closed several fund-raising loopholes.
Republicans were pushing to cut the limits for individual contributions by PACs, strengthen disclosure requirements and close some loopholes. But they balked at other key elements of the Democratic proposal, especially public financing and spending limits, and mounted a filibuster. They scorned public funding as a "new entitlement program" for congressional candidates and contended they needed a spending advantage to overcome Democratic edges in regions of entrenched Democratic power, such as the South.
With both parties holding their defections to two or three on each side, Democrats were unable to break the GOP filibuster and took several steps to meet GOP objections, including modification of public financing to allow it only when a candidate's opponent refused to abide by spending limits prescribed in the bill.
Democrats could not drop public financing entirely because it was needed as an inducement for acceptance of the kind of voluntary spending limits that currently apply in presidential campaigns. The Supreme Court outlawed mandatory limits in 1976.
But Republicans continued to object and introduced a counterproposal last week that continued to emphasize limits on PAC contributions and disclosure, while rejecting public financing and spending ceilings.
In yesterday's vote, the only Republicans to support cloture were Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.) and Robert T. Stafford (Vt.). Only Alabama Democrats Howell T. Heflin and Richard C. Shelby voted against it.