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February 22, 1998

Campaign Finance Debate to Resume in Senate


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    By ALISON MITCHELL

    WASHINGTON -- After a yearlong, $3.5 million investigation into the fund-raising abuses of the last presidential race, the Senate on Monday will take up the debate once again, with advocates of overhauling the campaign finance system still struggling for votes.

    Despite the lurid tales of fund-raising excess, proponents of the legislation acknowledge that they may be seven or eight votes short of the number needed to prevail.

    A group of chief executives, in a final effort to persuade more Republicans to support the main bipartisan campaign finance bill, is sponsoring a $1 million television and radio campaign in as many as nine states, calling for a ban on "soft money," the unlimited contributions to political parties.

    Opponents of the bill are also fighting hard. Republican leaders gave Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the prime platform of the weekly Republican radio address Saturday to condemn the overhaul measure as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

    After first mentioning the possible military confrontation with Iraq, McConnell said, "The Constitution is under assault, not from a foreign dictator, but from misguided folks in and outside of Congress."

    The flurry of preparations in advance of Monday's opening debate is misleading because the legislation appears to be precisely where it was last fall when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his co-sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., could muster no more than 53 of the 60 votes needed to keep their measure from dying in a Republican-led filibuster.

    Although still searching for a breakthrough, McCain acknowledges that it is possible that the best the overhaul forces may achieve this year is a direct recorded vote on their measure showing it has majority support. The Republican leadership grudgingly agreed to allow the vote only after overhaul proponents tied the Senate in procedural knots for three weeks last fall.

    Such a vote -- which the Democrats also want so they can create a campaign issue -- would provide a clear accounting, in an election year, of where senators stand.

    "In my view, it moves the ball down the field," McCain said. "The voters are fully informed as to how their elected representatives stood on the issue." Last year, the only campaign finance votes were not directly about the issue, but about whether to sustain filibusters.

    The 1996 election was the most expensive in the nation's history, and the Senate and House both held hearings on fund-raising abuses that focused heavily on President Clinton's aggressive use of his incumbency to attract campaign dollars.

    In the last few weeks, two people who raised money for the Democrats have been indicted. And an independent counsel is being named to investigate Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's role in his department's rejection of an Indian casino project. Rival Indian tribes that opposed the casino had promised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the Democrats.

    Polls consistently show that although the public does not like the campaign finance system, it does not expect Congress to change it. And the Republican leadership is fighting legislation that would erode the party's fund-raising advantage.

    Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, argued passionately in a speech last year that money had allowed him to win election to the House two decades ago in what was then the heavily Democratic South.

    "If I hadn't been able to get the money to get my message across," Lott said, "how could a conservative Republican be elected in the state of Mississippi, where the courthouses were all owned and operated by Democrats, almost exclusively so?"

    Lott will open the campaign finance debate on Monday by submitting his own bill.

    He has yet to provide the details, but his plan is expected to contain provisions that would rein in the political activities of organized labor by requiring unions to obtain written permission from members to use their dues for political purposes.

    Organized labor worked hard in the 1996 elections to try to restore Congress to Democratic control, and Democrats have said they will oppose any legislation containing a restriction on union political activities.

    McCain and Feingold are to offer their plan as the first amendment to Lott's bill. The centerpiece of their bill is a ban on the unlimited soft money contributions that corporations, labor and the wealthy make to the political parties. The legislation would also curb issue advocacy commercials, which often implicitly support or attack certain candidates but are not subject to contribution limits.

    The first key vote, expected as early as Tuesday, would be on whether to table -- or kill -- the McCain-Feingold plan. The senators are expected to win that vote. Test votes last year suggested that overhaul had support from 45 Democrats, and as many as seven or eight Republicans.

    But the Republican support is not necessarily firm. Nor is it enough to reach the 60 votes needed to end debate on the issue if opponents mount a filibuster.

    In an effort to gain more Republican votes, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has been floating an additional amendment to McCain-Feingold. Its key provision would prohibit union or corporate treasury money from being used for commercials that single out specific candidates within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.

    Ms. Snowe said that she was telephoning eight to 10 Republicans during last week's congressional recess but did not know whether she had picked up votes. Another unresolved question is whether Democrats will support Ms. Snow's amendment.

    A Republican leadership aide predicted flatly that the issue would remain at a stalemate, just as it was last year.

    Still, the lobbying promises to be intense. In New York City, Common Cause, a nonprofit group that supports campaign finance overhaul, handed out leaflets encouraging voters to call Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., and urge him to ban soft money. Clinton was preparing to circulate a letter to senators urging them to "support legislation that will make our democracy work better for all Americans." He has also taped radio messages offered to stations in several states urging voters to "let your senator know: A vote against this bill is a vote for soft money and for the status quo."

    On the other side of the issue, groups that say the overhaul bill imperils the right to use commercials to advocate their causes are fighting hard to kill the measure.

    The National Right to Life Committee, which usually devotes itself to fighting abortion, is even running a $10,000 radio campaign in Wisconsin, aiming at Feingold.

    Meanwhile, the unregulated, unlimited donations at the center of many of the 1996 campaign abuses continue to be raised in large amounts. According to Common Cause, national political party committees raised $67.4 million in such funds in 1997. Of that, $40.4 million was raised by Republicans, and $27 million by Democrats.




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