09/28/97 - 11:35 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Senate begins debate on finance reform

WASHINGTON - In an atmosphere of intense partisanship, the Senate plunged into debate Friday over legislation to overhaul the nation's costly and scandal-scarred system for financing political campaigns.

"All the excuses of the past are gone," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., outlining a bill that recently has been stripped of several controversial provisions in a bid to attract enough support to win passage.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, "I have my doubts" anything will emerge from a lengthy debate that threatens to produce at least one filibuster. No votes are expected before early October.

President Clinton said he was delighted the debate had begun but predicted, "There will be a lot of efforts to make it look like we're going to do something and nothing will happen" unless voters demand action.

The list of contentious points was a long one, including whether and how to limit "soft money," which is loosely regulated; whether and how to rein in outside groups that mount costly advertising campaigns on their own, and whether and how to restrict the ability of unions to spend dues and other similar funds on political activities without the consent of individual members.

Clinton and congressional Democrats have been demanding action on campaign finance legislation since the beginning of the year. Whether by accident or design, Lott opened debate on a day in which the president was hoping to raise $600,000 at a Houston fund-raising event for Democrats.

In a sharply worded speech, Lott spoke of "lurid exposes" about the campaign of 1996 and contended that Clinton's "standing on this subject of campaign finance reform is a case study of the problem, not an exemplar of the solution."

Referring to the protracted committee hearings into alleged abuses last year, and Attorney General Janet Reno's hesitation to appoint an independent counsel to probe fund-raising activities by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Lott said the demand from the White House and congressional Democrats for action on legislation was "'an effort to change the subject."

Rebutting for the Democrats, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "The American people are not dumb. They know the system is broken. ... People who think they can kill this effort with political gamesmanship - without anyone noticing - are wrong."

Behind the political maneuvering lie fundamentally different approaches to changes in a system in which candidates and parties raise hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle, and in which unions, businesses and other outside groups spend additional millions.

"And as the need for money escalates, the influence of those who give it rises exponentially," said McCain.

Lott and other Republicans oppose many of the limitations sought by McCain, his chief co-sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and most if not all other Democrats. The Republicans argue that such limits would amount to an infringement on the freedom of speech guaranteed in the Constitution.

"We should tread on this ground very very carefully," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

At the heart of the legislation backed by McCain and Feingold is a ban on unregulated contributions to federal races, coupled with fresh restrictions on campaign activities by outside groups.

The legislation also provides for greater disclosure by campaign contributors, as well as an incentive designed to discourage politicians from digging too deeply into their own pockets to finance their own campaigns.

In a late change that appears designed to pick up Republican support, the legislation requires labor unions to notify non-union workers if their payments in lieu of dues are being spent on campaigns, so they can ask for refunds.

Lott was expected to counter on Monday with an alternative of his own. While details were unavailable, he used his remarks on the floor to advocate "full, total and immediate disclosure" of contributions rather than limits on them. The reason, he said, was that "spending money to advance your own political views is as much a part of the right of free speech as running a free press."

Lott also was expected to demand that union members be allowed to prevent having their money spent on political activities they disagree with. And he wants stronger penalties for violations of existing laws.

Whatever the details of his proposal, the situation on the Senate floor was unsettled. Daschle said Lott's proposal relating to union contributions seemed designed to provoke a filibuster by Democrats and make them appear as obstacles to campaign finance reform.

"Their view is you ought to be able to spend as much as you want to - $200 million, $300 million - they've never put any limits on what they think you ought to spend in a Senate race if you want to," he added.

The McCain-Feingold bill commands the announced support of all 45 Senate Democrats and four Republicans. That leaves it one shy of the votes needed for passage - assuming Gore is available to break a tie - but 11 votes short of the number to choke off a Republican filibuster, should one materialize.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.