WASHINGTON - After weeks of Democratic pressure, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott announced an agreement Thursday for votes by March on campaign finance legislation. That should clear the way for action on other pressing issues before next month's planned adjournment.
"After a great deal of communication and discussion and working back and forth, I think we've come up with a fair agreement on how to handle the campaign finance reform issue," Lott said on the Senate floor.
Democrats, demanding that majority Republicans commit to a specific timetable for dealing with the campaign finance legislation, had used parliamentary tactics to stall action on all but urgent legislation, such as spending bills for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle called it "a very, very big victory for the country," and thanked Lott for "the leadership that he's shown in keeping everybody at the table as long as he has in order for this to be accomplished."
He said the key to gaining agreement were the four consecutive defeats of GOP attempts to cut off a Democratic filibuster on a six-year, $145 billion highway bill.
"I think there was a sense that 'We'll grind them down,"' Daschle said, but the fourth vote "was the critical demonstration that we were serious."
With the agreement, he said, the Senate can move to such priorities as a highway bill, an Amtrak bill, Internal Revenue Service reform and spending bills.
The Senate earlier this month debated the main bipartisan campaign finance bill authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., but Republicans filibustered it to a halt.
Lott allowed only one amendment to come up - a GOP measure requiring unions to get member permission to use dues for political purposes - and Democrats filibustered that as well.
The McCain-Feingold bill would end the unlimited "soft-money" contributions to political parties, and it would limit advertising and other efforts by outside groups for or against a specific candidate.
All 45 Senate Democrats have announced their support for the bill, as have four of the 55 Republicans.
McCain, who has steadfastly bucked his own party on the issue, thanked Lott for his part in reaching an agreement.
"I consider myself a close and dear friend of the majority leader, but the majority leader has seen a lot more of me than he wants to ever see me with such frequency ever again," McCain said.
Daschle said he would oppose any effort to bring up the bill before Lott does. McCain-Feingold proponents had wanted to attach it to unrelated legislation to get a straight yes-or-no vote.
In the House, lawmakers trying to force action on widely varying campaign finance measures - Republican, Democratic and bipartisan - have gained 177 signatures on a so-called discharge petition that would bring the proposals to the floor. They need 218, a majority of the 435-member House, and if they fail to get them all before the House recesses for the year, they can pick up where they left off next year.
Five signatures are those of Republicans. The rest are Democrats.
Although supporters are about 40 signatures short of succeeding, they got a hearing on the measures Thursday before the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.
A leader of the discharge petition effort, Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Ky., pressed for a vote this year.
"After a full year of scandals, hearings, investigations and partisan warfare, the public deserves to know where their elected leaders stand on campaign finance reform," said Baesler, a conservative Democrat.
But Thomas said there was no reason to vote this year, given that most bills covered by the petition wouldn't take effect until 1999, after the current election cycle is over.
Even the House counterpart to the McCain-Feingold bill, authored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., which would take effect 60 days after enactment, allows nine months for the Federal Election Commission to establish regulations, he noted.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., supports one bill covered by the petition, by Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif. It would repeal existing limits on how much individuals and political action committees may contribute to candidates or parties and the limits on how much parties may give to candidates and would strengthen disclosure requirements.
By The Associated Press
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