09/29/97 - 07:08 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Lott seeks campaign finance bill change

WASHINGTON - In a move attacked as a "poison pill" for campaign finance legislation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on Monday proposed requiring labor unions to gain written permission from their rank and file before using dues money for political purposes.

"Most Americans would be shocked to learn that some workers in our nation are forced to contribute to a candidate or campaign they don't support (or) don't know anything about," Lott said.

The Mississippi Republican outlined his proposal at the beginning of the second day of Senate debate on legislation designed to curtail the cost and nastiness of modern political campaigns, including a ban on unregulated "soft money" in races for Congress and the White House.

Supporters of the legislation, proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., condemned Lott's proposal as a threat designed to sabotage chances for passage.

"I think that some of my colleagues should take care to watch out for poison pills - those amendments which will be put in the bill in the hope of killing the bill," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Lott used his prerogative as majority leader to make sure that no other amendment can be considered until after a vote on his proposal. Anathema to organized labor, the proposal is expected to draw the opposition of all 45 Senate Democrats.

McCain, while voicing some sympathy with the proposal, said his "primary goal" was enactment of campaign finance legislation, and he would join Democrats in resisting. It wasn't immediately clear how the three other Republican backers of the campaign finance legislation would vote. Even if all lined up against Lott, McCain and Feingold would need to find a 50th vote to be assured of prevailing in the first skirmish on the bill.

The Arizona Republican repeatedly urged lawmakers to try to negotiate their differences.

"What the American people want is not a filibuster and not gridlock," he said at one point. "Not a filibuster by Republicans, not a filibuster by Democrats."

Lott noted that his father had once belonged to a union and insisted his amendment "is not targeted at unions."

"I hope no one will characterize this amendment as a poison pill to campaign finance reform," he said.

The proposal would require labor unions to get written permission in advance from members and nonunion members alike before using any dues, agency fees or other similar types of payments for political activities.

A similar requirement would be imposed on corporations, but GOP officials said they knew of virtually no existing instances that would apply.

Despite Lott's protests, Republican congressional leaders have made little secret of their desire to gain retribution against organized labor for its role in the 1996 elections. The AFL-CIO plowed an estimated $35 million into an independent advertising campaign last year designed to topple the GOP majority in the House.

No votes are expected in the Senate until next week at the earliest, but already, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., seemed to indicate he didn't expect success for the bipartisan campaign finance measure.

"This issue is not going to go away. If we get beaten somehow this session, my expectation is you're going to see it offered as an amendment to many, many, many, many bills next year," he said.

At the same time, Democrats fretted that Lott's proposal was designed to make supporters of the McCain-Feingold bill appear to be the side blocking a final vote on the legislation.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban "soft money," or unlimited, unregulated donations from unions, corporations and other groups to the two parties. It also would impose new restrictions on outside groups that mount costly advertising campaigns on their own, include incentives for politicians not to dig too deeply into their own pockets and impose new disclosure requirements on campaign donors.

The McCain-Feingold bill would give nonunion members the ability to block unions from using payments in lieu of dues for political purposes, but it contains no such provision for union members.

By The Associated Press

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