A day after senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.) got pummeled by GOP colleagues over his campaign finance bill, Democratic leaders moved to snatch the issue away from him and portray themselves as the champions of bolder reform.
In the process, the Senate sank into a parliamentary swamp that further threatened already slim prospects that it would join the House in approving a major strengthening of campaign fund-raising rules this year.
As they have on other occasions, lawmakers also demonstrated that they value campaign finance as a political issue, even though they may not pass any legislation on the subject.
As the Senate began a second day of debate on legislation sponsored by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) to stop the flow of unregulated cash to political parties, Democratic leaders sought to force test votes on both the McCain-Feingold measure and a broader version approved last month by the House.
While Democrats insisted that they merely wanted to ensure votes on both measures, McCain cried foul, warning that any effort to pass the broader bill was likely to run into the same obstacles that tripped it up last year and doom chances of passing anything at all this year.
It would be viewed as a "cynical ploy that would assure the defeat of campaign finance reform" this year, McCain protested.
The McCain-Feingold measure is focused on banning unlimited, unregulated "soft money" donations by corporations, unions and individuals to political parties.
To pick up more Republican support, McCain and Feingold dropped another key provision that was included in the House-approved measure as well as earlier versions of their own bill. It would have regulated campaign season issue advertising by outside groups that indirectly promotes election or defeat of specific candidates, which many Republicans have opposed as a violation of free-speech rights.
The theory behind the move is that the soft money ban, without other encumbrances, might be able to pick up the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster against the measure, leaving senators free to add other provisions if they could muster a majority for them. The strategy helped McCain and Feingold pick up one more vote, leaving them with seven to go. If they go back to the broader bill, they would be reduced to the same 52 votes they had last year, they argue.
But Democratic leaders argue that the deleted provisions, especially the restrictions on issue ads, are essential to keep special-interest money that now goes to the parties from being rechanneled to outside groups.
In bringing up the House-passed measure, Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) commended McCain and Feingold but said the Senate "can and must go farther" by cracking down on "phony issue ads" that "epitomize negative campaigning without accountability."
Earlier, McCain fired off a letter to President Clinton urging him to try to keep Democratic senators from trying to substitute the House bill for the narrower one. He expressed concern that Republican foes of the legislation might vote for the broader bill in hopes of thwarting all action on the subject this year.
Even though Democrats eventually moved for votes on both bills rather than trying to substitute the broader bill for the narrower one, McCain said he was still worried that the effect would be the same, ensuring defeat of the legislation.
As the day ended, the Senate was faced with procedural votes Tuesday on both bills, each of them requiring 60 votes. It was not clear what would happen after that, including whether Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) might try to shelve the measure and move on to other legislation if both votes fell short of 60.
Yesterday's move by the Democrats followed a preemptive strike Thursday by GOP foes of the bill to put McCain on the defensive by challenging him to back up his allegations that special-interest campaign contributions are corrupting politics.
They called on him to name names if he knew of any corruption. McCain did not do so, insisting that he was attacking a corrupt system that tarnishes everyone in politics, rather than suggesting any particular individuals were corrupt.