The issue of campaign finance reform, largely dormant on Capitol Hill for the past year, reignited in the Senate yesterday with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) exchanging insults over McCain's effort to promote the issue in his presidential campaign and prod the Senate to act.
Even as Texas Gov. George W. Bush's call for banning "soft money" gifts from corporations and unions--but not from individuals--drew a mixed reaction from reform advocates, the Lott-McCain exchange dramatized the differences in the Senate on curbing the flow of campaign cash.
Following a strategy that led to a successful filibuster against campaign finance legislation in the last Congress, Lott and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) have delayed scheduling any action on this issue so far this year.
On Wednesday, McCain, in a heavily publicized speech in New Hampshire, vowed to "make room" for the issue in the Republican presidential contest and cited what he called examples of the Republican Congress knuckling under to "special interest" contributors. He indicated he would try to attach the measure to other legislation coming to the Senate floor this month.
Talking to reporters about McCain yesterday, Lott acidly observed, "When you're out there raising money right and left and then talking about how you would reform the system, it rings a little hollow." He said McCain "should concentrate on his presidential campaign" and on bills he is responsible for steering through the Senate as chairman of the Commerce Committee.
McCain responded in a statement claiming "Lott and other leaders of our party . . . are far out of step with the party's grass-roots." The rank-and-file "know the cause of less government and more freedom that they elected a Republican Congress to serve has taken a back seat to the corrupting chase for soft money."
McCain said that he had made sure his campaign "adheres to the letter and the spirit" of the bill he has sponsored, adding, "I'm going to try to keep the majority leader's attention focused on this issue so that he won't make any other uninformed mistakes on national television."
Further evidence that the issue is heating up came when Bush, in press comments Wednesday in California, called for instant disclosure of all contributions and said he favored ending the practice by which companies and unions can make unlimited gifts to national party committees for use in such activities as voter registration and turnout, ostensibly not intended to benefit individual candidates.
Critics of such "soft money" said these gifts--in amounts ranging well up into the six figures--fattened Democratic and Republican coffers in 1996 and paid for ads almost indistinguishable from candidate spots. Soft money was blamed for many of the improprieties that triggered congressional investigations and a Justice Department probe of the last presidential election. Ending these contributions is a major purpose of the legislation that McCain has cosponsored with Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).
Bush's comments on campaign finance, offered on the day he broke the record for early fund-raising with $36 million in the first half of 1999, were terse enough to be open to interpretation. According to his press secretary, Karen Hughes, Bush would end soft money contributions from unions and corporations because "stakeholders and stockholders have no voice" in the way company and union executives direct that money. But she said Bush would not limit the size of individual contributions.
Asked if that would give the Republicans an advantage, she said, "We have noticed that some of the wealthiest people in the country are Democrats."
Bush's stance drew cautious approval from some legislators on both sides of the issue. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has succeeded in blocking campaign finance legislation for a decade or more, said Bush "strengthened my side of the argument" by excluding individuals from the soft-money ban and requiring shareholder or member approval for corporate and union giving. "It's not my first choice . . . but I could probably live with that," McConnell said.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the cosponsor of the House companion to McCain-Feingold, welcomed Bush's support for a partial soft-money ban as "a step in the right direction" but warned that Bush's exclusion of state parties and individual contributions would "allow for very significant abuse."
In the House, Democrats have launched a petition drive to force votes on the Shays bill sooner than the second week of September, when Hastert has promised them a vote. They have gathered 202 signatures, all but six of them from Democrats. But they are stalled 16 short of the 218 needed to succeed, with little if any hope of picking up any more signatures, according to organizers of the petition drive.
In the Senate, McCain has served notice he may try to jump-start the process by forcing a Senate vote this month. "We're giving serious consideration to doing it. . . . I see no reason now why we wouldn't do it," he said. "If we wait till September, then it's obviously going to be far, far more difficult" because of heavy pressures to finish appropriations bills before the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.
The McCain-Feingold bill would ban unlimited soft money donations to political parties, regulate late-campaign "issue advocacy" ads that target specific candidates and strengthen disclosure requirements.
Last year, it won support of 52 senators, but fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to force action. McCain said he believed the bill might pick up support from "a couple of others" but was not predicting a breakthrough.
"I would anticipate we'll see an increase but I'm not sure whether we can get to 60," he said.
CAPTION: Sen. John McCain calls GOP leaders "out of step" with grass-roots.
CAPTION: To GOP leader Trent Lott, candidate McCain rings "a little hollow."