WASHINGTON - Majority Leader Trent Lott complained Thursday that much legislative work won't get done this year because Democratic senators are blocking most action until Republicans agree to reconsider a campaign finance overhaul.
"We've got a lot of stuff that we could do here in the next two weeks if we could get a process to achieve that," said Lott, R-Miss., who wants to recess for the year on Nov. 7.
In addition to a $145 billion, six-year highway bill blocked Thursday by a Senate vote and the fast-track trade negotiating authority sought by President Clinton, Lott said, "It's Amtrak, it's juvenile justice, it's foster care and adoption" as well as the Endangered Species Act and product liability.
Lott's statement that he was amenable to campaign finance consideration in early March or before didn't satisfy Democrats.
Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Democratic senators were united on blocking action on most legislation until Lott agrees on "how we address campaign finance reform in a meaningful way in the future." They are not stalling government spending bills for fiscal 1998, which began Oct. 1.
All 45 Democratic senators were joined by seven Republicans in maintaining a filibuster Thursday against a highway amendment. Two more such efforts to limit debate, requiring 60 votes to pass, were scheduled.
Daschle said Democrats want commitments on a date to debate the bill written by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and to permit amendments and votes.
"We've had five votes," countered Lott, noting three cloture votes - efforts to limit debate - earlier this month on McCain-Feingold and two on his amendment to force unions to get each member's approval before using dues for political purposes. "It's not as if we haven't voted on it."
McCain predicted campaign finance legislation will pass only "if we all sit down together and try to work out something that is agreeable and fair."
Daschle said he recognized that when the Senate does reconsider McCain-Feingold, each amendment and the bill would need the support of 60 senators to block filibusters.
The McCain-Feingold bill would ban unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties, bar parties from spending for candidates who don't limit personal spending to $50,000 on their own election and more clearly delineate whether advocacy groups are supporting issues or candidates. It is supported by all 45 Democrats but only a few Republicans.
GOP opponents say limiting political donations would infringe on First Amendment rights to free speech and that the focus should be on alleged Democratic violations during the 1996 presidential election.
McCain-Feingold "would limit people's abilities to have a fair shot at getting elected," Lott said. "If I can't raise the money to get my message across, there are those who are going to try to get it across for me," specifically newspapers. "If I had to depend on them, I wouldn't be here."
The House on Oct. 1 approved by voice vote an $11.5 billion, six-month extension of the highway bill, postponing consideration of a $200 billion, six-year bill until next year.
By The Associated Press