10/09/97 - 12:17 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Inaction may carry high cost for Congress

WASHINGTON - Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was trying to be understanding. Of course Republicans are "extraordinarily enthusiastic" about the Senate examination of 1996 fund-raising practices, he said, "because it reflects in a very negative way on the Democratic Party."

But what about the bigger picture? Daschle asked his colleagues this week on the Senate floor. "The real question is, where will this take us?"

The answer so far from the Republican-controlled Senate is nowhere. The major campaign-reform bill, McCain-Feingold, is in a cycle of gridlock. Neither side can get enough votes to kill it or pass it.

The impasse continued Wednesday with a second failed attempt to break a Republican filibuster on the bill; a third try is scheduled today. Democrats also tried and failed Wednesday to offer McCain-Feingold as an amendment to a $181 billion highway bill. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott blocked that tactic.

"I do not intend for this to become a campaign finance reform forum," Lott said. Earlier he had declared that "campaign finance reform is not going to pass this year."

The political risk to reform opponents so far is perceived as minimal. But that may well change. As reform advocates often ask, after months of seamy or scandalous revelations, how can lawmakers go home and say they did nothing?

The conventional wisdom is that most politicians don't want campaign finance reform because the current system takes care of incumbents so well. But some key differences this time around could prove significant.

Higher stakes

Democrats are more interested in reform this year than ever before. Yes, President Clinton pledged campaign finance reform in his 1992 campaign, decrying the way "cliques of $100,000 donors buy access to Congress and the White House."

But Democratic leaders in Congress waited until the waning days of 1994 to bring up the subject. With time running out, a GOP filibuster delivered the fatal blow to that year's reform bill. Analysts blamed both parties for the death, and Republicans won control of Congress that November.

This year Clinton is more than a passive observer, and all 45 Senate Democrats are united for the cause. Given what's come to light about White House and Democratic Party fund-raising, backing reform is their best hope for dealing with the issue going into the 1998 and 2000 elections.

If Democrats have much to gain, they also have less to lose. Republicans consistently outdo them in raising soft money - the unlimited, unregulated donations to national parties. Already this year Democrats are down 2-to-1.

Not surprisingly, most Republicans want to continue business as usual. The problem is not the system, they say, the problem is the Democrats. "It would be real nice if we found out what laws were broken, how they were broken and who broke them, before we start running off to come up with a lot more laws," Lott said Wednesday.

Republicans in forefront

But another change this year is that two prominent Republicans are ringleaders of reform. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam POW, has been pushing his reform bill for two years. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., former Watergate prosecutor and movie actor, heads the Senate investigation of 1996 fund-raising and is a McCain-Feingold stalwart.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money, tighten control of advertising by outside groups and increase disclosure of donations and spending. Opponents, led by Lott, say it violates free-speech rights.

Underlying the almost incomprehensible procedural tangle on the Senate floor is Lott's "paycheck protection" amendment requiring that unions get permission to use dues for political purposes.

"What we're talking about here is the principle that no one in America should have his money taken and spent on causes with which he might disagree," says Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a leading McCain-Feingold foe. Democrats counter that dues-payers can get refunds and that's sufficient.

Underlying both positions is a stark political fact: Labor spending benefits Democrats almost exclusively. In the past few years the AFL-CIO has spent tens of millions of dollars attacking GOP Medicare proposals and last year sank $1.1 million into one Arizona House district in an attempt to oust Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Democrats would desert McCain-Feingold in droves if the Lott amendment passed, dooming its chances.

Moderate GOP senators led by Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have been trying to broker a compromise. Though talks continued Wednesday, Snowe was pessimistic. "At this point I don't see any possibilities."

Lott and McConnell don't consider McCain-Feingold a starting point for negotiations. But both say they could live with a few changes, among them tighter restrictions on foreign-linked contributions and faster, more extensive disclosure. McConnell says he could accept a limit on soft money contributions, although he declines to specify where he would put that limit.

Both sides will face heightened pressure for action as revelations stream from the Senate, the Justice Department, a new House probe, and perhaps later, an independent counsel. For those who don't respond, predicts Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., "there will be a price to be paid down the road."

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY