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02/22/98- Updated 04:24 PM ET

Senate to stall campaign finance bill

WASHINGTON - Campaign finance legislation takes a bow in the Senate this week and is likely to be ushered off the stage almost as quickly as it appears.

"We'll have a few days of debate, and it will be clear there are not 60 votes for any approach," predicted Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

He's an implacable foe of the legislation to ban "soft money" and impose other restrictions on the campaign spending system. But proponents don't disagree with that scenario, despite a fresh attempt by Maine's moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe to break a deadlock on the thorny issue of union political activity.

"I will admit that I do not believe they (60 votes) are there," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at the weekend, conceding that supporters of campaign finance legislation won't likely be able to break a filibuster. Interviewed on CNN's Evans and Novak, McCain said the bill he co-authored will garner more support than last fall, and "I will view that as an accomplishment."

Majority Leader Trent Lott arranged to bring the measure to the floor Monday as part of a negotiated settlement that ended last autumn's campaign finance combat.

Efforts at that time to enact legislation were thwarted by dual filibusters. McConnell, Lott and most other Republicans refused to allow a vote on the measure drafted by McCain and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

At the same time, they proposed legislation to require organized labor to obtain the written consent of their members before spending compulsory union dues on political campaigns.

Democrats promptly labeled that a "poison pill" and mounted a filibuster of their own.

In the end, neither side got the 60 votes needed to advance its proposal, and the legislation was shelved.

The McCain-Feingold bill, backed by all 45 Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans, would ban unregulated "soft money" to national political parties from corporations, labor unions and individuals. It also provides fresh curbs on advertisements that attack candidates but escape regulation because they are presented as "issue ads" not covered by existing election law.

While supporters of the measure say changes are necessary to curtail abuses of the current system, some Republicans argue they infringe on the Constitution.

"Be it bumper stickers on your car, yard signs on your law ... or a voluntary contribution of your own hard-earned money to the candidates of party of your choosing - these are all constitutionally protected means of participation in our democracy," McConnell said Saturday in his radio address.

Recent public opinion polling offers no hint of a groundswell of support for the measure that McCain and Feingold have advocated for years.

"It's not an issue the public lists when asked what they think is important," concedes Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., At the same time, he said, "when asked, they say, 'We don't think you guys are going to do it, but you sure should."'

The struggle over union political activity has become a critical element of campaign reform.

Republicans complain that organized labor uses compulsory union dues to fund campaigns against the very GOP candidates that rank-and-file union workers support.

They describe as "paycheck protection" their proposal to ban this, and McConnell argued strongly for it in his Republican radio address. "Millions of Americans currently see a portion of each paycheck confiscated by labor unions and used - against the workers' will - to advance a political agenda," he said. "This is wrong and must be stopped."

Efforts to forge a compromise on the issue of union dues faltered last fall, but Snowe has recently been working to rekindle that effort.

Her 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, it prohibits the use of union or corporate funds for such 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.

Two other Republicans, Sens. James Jeffords of Vermont and John Chafee of Rhode Island, appear ready to join Snowe in supporting the measure. While those three votes would allow supporters of campaign finance legislation to kill the so-called "paycheck protection" amendment, it would leave them far short of the 60 votes needed to choke off the GOP filibuster against the underlying campaign measure.

As a result, while Feingold and Levin are advocating its adoption, aides say Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to embrace Snowe's proposal. They fear it would accomplish little toward meeting their overall objective of ending the GOP filibuster.

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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