10/03/97 - 01:51 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Senate nears clash on fund-raising reform

WASHINGTON - The Senate is moving toward a showdown over campaign-finance reform early next week. But supporters vow they'll continue their fight even if crucial votes expected Tuesday don't go their way.

"We're going to amend every single piece of legislation to come before the Senate for as long as it takes to get this legislation passed," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Thursday. "Pulling McCain-Feingold does not end the debate on McCain-Feingold."

McCain-Feingold is the reform package the Senate has been debating on and off for a week. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., was prepared to file motions Friday to cut off debate on a controversial amendment he has sponsored and possibly on the McCain-Feingold bill itself.

The reform measure is essentially dead if supporters can't muster the 60 votes necessary to stop debate and proceed to vote on it. At that point Lott must decide whether or when to pull the bill off the floor so the Senate can take up other business.

The math looks grim for McCain-Feingold supporters. Senators signed on so far include all 45 Democrats but only four Republicans.

Democrats contend Lott, who strongly opposes the McCain-Feingold bill, is trying to make the endgame as confusing as possible. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said his fellow Republican is simply trying to move on. "He wants to close out the whole thing," McCain said Thursday. "There's nothing Machiavellian about it. His job is to run the Senate."

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban unregulated, unlimited "soft money" contributions to national parties and tighten restrictions on political ads by outside groups. It would also offer incentives to candidates to limit their personal spending and require more disclosure of campaign fund-raising and spending. And it would put into law a Supreme Court ruling that nonunion members required to pay fees in lieu of dues can get refunds on the portion of their money used for political purposes.

Lott said McCain-Feingold needs some changes. His amendment would extend those refunds to union members and require unions to get advance permission to spend dues on politics. That is unacceptable to Democrats and therefore fatal to the overall bill.

McCain said pressure is building on senators to support some type of reform and refused to predict failure for the bill he and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold have been promoting for two years.

"The situation is extremely fluid. I concede nothing," he said.

McCain hopes to offer a motion Tuesday to kill the Lott amendment. He needs 51 votes to do it. "I'm hopeful that I would have them by then," he said. "If we win, that changes the dynamics. At that point, Sen. Lott might want to talk" about a campaign-finance reform compromise.

However, Lott aides said Thursday they are confident they have the votes to defeat McCain's motion. Moreover, if that support erodes over the weekend, there is no guarantee Lott will let McCain offer it.

If reformers lose Tuesday and Lott pulls the bill off the floor, Daschle said he would offer the package as an amendment to every possible vehicle that comes along, including important highway and trade bills. McCain said he would "force a vote on just a ban on soft money. I will try to do that in whatever way that I can."

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY