October 31, 1997

Senate Leader Agrees to a Test Vote on Campaign Finance Bill

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    WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders seeking to break a three-week logjam in the Senate grudgingly agreed on Thursday to allow a test vote by next March on a bill to overhaul the country's campaign finance system.

    The retreat by the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, marked a modest victory for the mostly Democratic supporters of the bill. It will give them the opportunity to focus attention on the effort to change the way campaigns are financed and put senators on the record for the first time, even if only on a preliminary vote.

    Opponents could still water down or even filibuster the effort. So far, only 49 senators -- 45 Democrats and 4 Republicans -- have publicly endorsed the measure, and 60 votes would be needed to clear a filibuster.

    Lott, who opposes most proposed changes to the campaign finance law, had blocked a direct vote on the bill earlier this month. But supporters of the legislation had tied the Senate in procedural knots, stalling consideration of several other bills, until Lott relented.

    Supporters of the bill say they hope that continuing disclosures of campaign spending scandals, along with not wanting to be perceived as voting against cleaning up money-raising methods, will deliver the 60 votes they need.

    "By February, people will want to negotiate something in a bipartisan fashion," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is one of the bill's two main sponsors.

    The bill, which is also sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., would ban the unlimited and unregulated contributions, known as soft money, that go to party activities and issues rather than directly to candidates. The measure would distinguish more clearly between advertisements that champion candidates and those that advocate issues. These issue advertisements have been used in recent campaigns as thinly veiled attacks against a candidate's opponent.

    In the short term, Thursday's agreement gives Lott what he wanted: a clear path for the Senate to vote on legislation dealing with Amtrak, foreign trade and overhauling the Internal Revenue Service, as well as several spending bills, before Congress adjourns next month.

    "We've come up with a fair agreement on how to handle the campaign-finance reform issue that would allow us to go forward on other issues this year," Lott said in announcing the agreement on the Senate floor.

    Lott had tried to shatter the Democrats' resolve by threatening to abandon a highly popular six-year, $145 billion highway spending bill if they did not back down. But in four cloture votes, Democrats held firm and turned back efforts to end the filibuster and advance the highway bill.

    On Tuesday, Lott shelved the bill for the year.

    Under the agreement, the Senate will take up a campaign finance bill offered by Lott by March 6, 1998. McCain and Feingold will be allowed to offer their bill, or components of it, as the first amendment. The first vote, however, would be a move to kill, or table, the McCain-Feingold measure.

    Still, that would serve the purpose of putting members on record for or against it.

    If the Senate killed the amendment, that would most likely end the measure's chances. If the amendment survived, opponents would probably try to gut it with other amendments or, as a last resort, filibuster the measure into a stalemate.

    "It will take 60 votes to resolve the issue of campaign finance," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., told reporters on Thursday. "Clearly the votes for McCain-Feingold now are not enough to pass."

    McCain had originally sought to have his bill as the underlying legislation. But Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has led the opposition to changing campaign finance law, rejected that approach, and offered an alternative that McCain said weakened his hand. Thursday's agreement was struck after lengthy three-way discussions among Lott, McCain and McConnell.

    McConnell said in an interview, "All parliamentary options are still available, so I'm happy with this."

    Republicans and Democrats alike were quick to claim victory on Thursday.

    At their weekly policy lunch, Senate Democrats cheered when their leader, Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, passed out copies of the agreement.

    Feingold said: "It certainly would have been my preference to have a bill passed this year. But this appears to be a fair outcome and we will have a continuation of this important debate next year."

    Even some Republicans who oppose the bill said they were surprised by the terms of the agreement.

    "This is a pretty generous deal for McCain-Feingold," said a senior Republican aide who opposes the legislation.

    "No doubt McConnell was getting pressure from Lott," the aide said. "It was definitely something Lott wanted out of."

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