09/11/97 - 06:11 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Senate Democrats ask for vote on campaign financing

WASHINGTON - With campaign finance legislation stalled in the Senate, all 45 Democrats swung behind a pending bipartisan measure on Thursday and challenged Majority Leader Trent Lott to let it come to a vote.

"Your willingness to schedule (the bill) for an up-or-down vote, coupled with the support of only two additional Republican senators, could break ten years of gridlock," Democrats wrote Lott.

Lott's spokeswoman, Susan Irby, said the Mississippi Republican believes that ongoing Senate hearings into questionable money raised during the 1996 campaign should be finished before Congress rewrites the laws.

"We need to be further along," she added.

Legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has been pending in the Senate without a commitment from Lott for floor action.

In its current form, it would ban so-called soft money raised by the national political parties; place new restrictions on the ability of political action committees to make campaign donations; and offer incentives, in the form of free or reduced television advertising time, to candidates who abide by voluntary limitations on campaign fund raising and spending.

For his part, McCain minimized the importance of the Democratic pressure on Lott. "I just don't see a lot of meaning to it," he said of the letter.

The Arizona Republican said his own negotiations with Lott to bring the issue to the Senate floor "have shown progress," and he expected them to be wrapped up by next week.

The letter was the latest move by Democrats in both houses to gain political advantage on the issue of campaign finance reform. In the House, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has regularly been forcing roll call votes on procedural matters to protest the lack of action on campaign finance legislation by majority Republicans.

And in disclosing the letter to Lott, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Democrats were as determined to prevail as they were on minimum wage legislation that Republicans blocked for months before it finally passed last year.

"We're not going to let go of this. Sooner or later, with some frequency if necessary, we will be presenting an opportunity for the Senate to keep voting on this legislation," the Senate Democratic leader told reporters.

In addition to McCain, GOP Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine have announced their support for the campaign finance legislation.

The Senate's most outspoken critic of campaign finance legislation, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, ridiculed the letter from Democrats.

"All 45 Democrats calling for campaign finance reform is about like Bonnie and Clyde saying we need new banking regulations," he said.

Noting the extended public hearings into alleged fund-raising abuses by Democrats in the 1996 campaign, he added, "No effort to change the subject is going to work."