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02/09/98- Updated 10:39 PM ET

Dems mull campaign finance compromise

WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats are reviewing a compromise proposal to impose new restrictions on the political use of union dues and corporate funds as a way of advancing campaign finance legislation expected on the Senate floor by early March.

The proposal, advanced by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is an alternative to broader restraints on union political activity being sought by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other GOP lawmakers.

Snowe, who holds a pivotal vote on campaign finance issues in the Senate, said in an interview Monday she "hopes that we can create middle ground on this whole issue."

She said she was "trying to bridge the gap between (supporters of campaign finance legislation) and the concerns on the Republican side about leveling the playing field in term of the role unions play."

Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, the leading Democratic supporter of campaign finance overhaul, said in a statement that he had not "signed off line by line on the proposed amendment to McCain-Feingold, which is currently being discussed, but it has potential."

The proposal requires speedy disclosure of contributors to any broadcast commercials targeting specific candidates for office within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

In addition, though, it prohibits the use of union or corporate funds for these ads. It would "simply require funding to come from sources traditionally relied upon for campaign purposes - PACs (political action committees) or individual, voluntary donors," according to a summary of the legislation.

Campaign finance legislation, which fell victim to dueling filibusters last fall, is scheduled to return to the Senate floor either later this month or early in March.

The legislation faces daunting obstacles in both the Senate and House.

The main element of the Senate legislation, crafted by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Feingold, would ban so-called soft money contributions to the national political parties from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals. It also provides for stricter disclosure of political donations and includes a provision designed to strengthen the current prohibition on donations from foreigners.

Lott and other Senate Republicans are bidding to attach a "paycheck protection" provision that would require unions to obtain written permission from individual members before using their dues for political purposes.

They note that organized labor spent millions in compulsory union dues on political activity in 1995 and 1996, much of it aimed at defeating Republican candidates and electing Democrats. This was the case, they add, despite polls that show a healthy percentage of union members cast ballots for the very GOP candidates that organized labor was attempting to defeat.

The likely first test for supporters of campaign finance overhaul this year in the Senate will be to muster 51 votes to kill Lott's proposal. The most recent roll calls on the subject suggest there are 49 votes to do so, including all 45 Democrats and four Republicans, but not counting Snowe, Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont and several other Republicans who have expressed sympathy with the overall goal of the practices.

Still, Snowe noted that ultimately, supporters of fundamental change in campaign finance laws will need 60 votes to prevail, enough to overcome a filibuster pledged by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other staunch foes of the legislation.

Snowe and Jeffords were involved in efforts to achieve a compromise on the issue of union spending last fall, but it ultimately failed.

Snowe convened a meeting in her office several days ago with a bipartisan group of senators and Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who played a major role in crafting the most recent proposal.

Ornstein said recently that the "bottom line is, it reduces and cuts back and exposes to public view ads that are being done" by entities other than the political parties.

When Lott first proposed his curbs on union dues last fall, Democrats countered that similar restrictions should apply to organizations such as the Christian Coalition, which typically spend heavily to elect Republicans.

Ornstein said that under the proposal, groups such as the Christian Coalition would be permitted to run ads within the 30- or 60-day window, but would have to establish a separate account for such ads and make public disclosures promptly on donors. No corporate funds could be accepted, he added.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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