10/16/97 - 12:18 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

GOP offers donors access to VIPs

WASHINGTON - It sounds like an offer no potential donor could refuse: VIP briefings, intimate receptions, exclusive photo opportunities, the chance to "rub shoulders with the people whose faces you've seen every day on CNN and C-SPAN and the networks."

All this and more for just a $1,000 membership in "the prestigious Republican Senatorial Inner Circle."

But Steve Grossman, nominated to be one of only 17 members from Massachusetts, was not tempted by the letter promising that he could become "a recognized Republican leader in your own right."

Grossman is national chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in charge of the party's daily operations.

"Maybe they didn't really mean to invite me," he said Wednesday.

Mike Russell, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), broke into laughter when told of the fund-raising foul-up. "My explanation for that is El Nino," he said. "Strange things happen this time of year."

Amid the videotaped White House coffees and other storms swirling around the Clinton administration and Democratic Party, the unusually direct GOP fund-raising letter is a classic example of business-as-usual under the current campaign finance system.

Both parties endure the occasional fund-raising appeal gone astray, but opposing party chairmen are rarely on the receiving end. The gushy Sept. 12 letter to Grossman came from Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., NRSC chairman and chief foe of campaign finance reform.

McConnell invites Grossman to an all-star GOP briefing Nov. 4-5 and says the event "will prove that you can have a personal and effective say in where our nation is headed."

Among other things, Grossman is offered:

"Unprecedented opportunity to meet, discuss issues and dine with top Party leaders" such as Jack Kemp, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

"Intimate issue briefings" that bring members "face-to-face with the Republican Chairmen and Sub-Committee Chairmen of the Committees of the U.S. Senate: The very men and women who are making decisions on the most important issues of the day."

Chances to dine privately with a Republican host at "intimate VIP dinner parties" at "prestigious clubs, restaurants and historic homes across Washington, D.C."

Among the Republican senators participating in the Inner Circle activities are Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Susan Collins of Maine, all members of the committee investigating 1996 fund-raising abuses.

Their participation, combined with McConnell's explicit letter, prompted Democrats to complain of hypocrisy and access-for-sale. "You'd think Republicans would be appalled by the kinds of activities offered in this letter," Grossman said. "They're offering meetings with elected officials in exchange for contributions."

Not that Democrats are angels. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle caught flak for taking donors on a special tour of Mount Rushmore. Senate Democratic contributors attend Nantucket weekends in Massachusetts and LBJ weekends in Texas. And party committees certainly send out their share of direct mail appeals.

"We've been called on the carpet about language that may be inappropriate or close to the line," says Michael Tucker, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "We try to be extremely cautious given the current political landscape."

Russell denies any excesses or improprieties in the GOP letter. "People who work for the party or make contributions have the right to occasionally meet members of Congress, snap a picture, ask a question," he said. "That's a big difference from using federal property to raise money or soliciting from foreign nationals."

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY