10/08/97 - 06:05 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Who's to blame for killing reform?

WASHINGTON - Legislation to overhaul the nation's campaign finance system is near death in the Senate, but the struggle between Democrats and Republicans to assign blame is just beginning.

For their part, Democrats labor relentlessly to depict themselves as proponents of reform and Republicans as greedy, dedicated opponents.

"Their view is you ought to be able to spend as much as you want to - $200 million, $300 million - they've never put any limits on what they think you ought to spend in a Senate race if you want to," Democratic leader Tom Daschle said during the debate.

Republicans counter that the legislation is a threat to the Constitution's right of free speech. Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi told reporters Wednesday, "I am proud to accept responsibility for protecting the First Amendment."

Fearful of losing control of the floor, Lott also has maneuvered to deny Democrats the right to offer amendments, to give them a majority-wins vote on the subject and to place them on the defensive in the struggle over a bill they have - somewhat reluctantly - adopted as their own.

"I set it up so they will be filibustering me," the Mississippi Republican said shortly before the debate began this week. Indeed he did, with a so-called "paycheck protection" provision to give union members the right to demand their dues not be spent on political activities.

That same provision presumably would cripple organized labor's political apparatus - thus silencing the organization that almost cost the Republicans control of the House in the 1996 elections.

Democrats have resorted to a filibuster to block the union amendment, just as Lott and Republicans mounted a filibuster to block a straightforward vote on the underlying campaign finance legislation.

The deadlock persisted Wednesday in the Senate, as lawmakers voted 52-47, eight short of the 60 needed, against an attempt to bring the bill to a final vote. Additional test votes are scheduled for Thursday.

The maneuvering comes at a time when polling shows little clamor from the public for changes in the current system. Most Republicans evidently have concluded they have little to fear from opposing the legislation.

In the most recent survey conducted for the Republican National Committee, for example, 11% of the respondents volunteered that "reducing power of special interests" would be the most important factor in deciding which candidate to support for Congress. None of 1,000 people interviewed volunteered that the campaign finance system should be overhauled, according to one official with access to the survey.

On the other hand, Democrats point to other surveys showing the public overwhelmingly favors changes in the campaign system when asked directly. "It has not been a voting issue in the past because people did not see a difference between candidates on the issue," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster and adviser to Daschle.

To change that, Daschle, D-S.D., enlisted all 45 Democrats as sponsors on the legislation crafted by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, even though several members of the rank and file privately harbor misgivings about different provisions.

In addition, Daschle served notice that if Republicans should fail to give adequate airing to the issue, Democrats would bring it up again and again by trying to attach it to unrelated pieces of legislation. That strategy is reminiscent of earlier efforts to pass an increase in the minimum wage.

At times, the maneuvering has seemed designed for little purpose other than to shape public opinion.

When Daschle complained Lott wouldn't schedule the legislation for the floor, Lott sought permission to bring it to the floor at his discretion - but offered no specific date to do so.

Daschle promptly objected, saying he had been blind-sided. He demanded a date prior to Oct. 30 be set to allow enough time to debate the issue before the end of the congressional session.

He quickly solicited and received a letter from President Clinton vowing to call lawmakers back into session later in the year if they adjourned without "sufficient time for debate."

Republicans find Clinton's advocacy of the legislation a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from his well-documented problems that arose from his 1996 re-election campaign. "The problem is the laws have been broken. And I think we should enforce the law before we start running off to change the laws," Lott said Wednesday.

In the meantime, each side is girding for the next round.

"There was always a question of who was going to be responsible for killing it," said Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana. "Now it's just a muddled mess."

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.