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October 24, 1997

Senate Deadlocked on Campaign Finance


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    By ERIC SCHMITT

    WASHINGTON -- The Senate stalled Thursday when Democratic and Republican leaders failed to reach agreement on when and under what conditions senators will reconsider a campaign finance bill early next year.

    With no deal in hand, Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans blocked an effort by Republican leaders to advance a $181 billion transportation bill that most senators of both parties support.

    The deadlock comes three weeks before Congress is to adjourn for the year and threatens to jeopardize consideration of not only the highway bill, but also major legislation dealing with foreign trade and Amtrak that has bipartisan support.

    As the Senate faced a stalemate, its committee investigating campaign- finance abuses signaled that its hearings in the next few weeks would include high-profile witnesses. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said Thursday that he intended to call Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to answer questions about how a controversial Indian casino project was handled by the Interior Department.

    And Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential candidate, wrote a letter to the committee stating that he would appear to answer questions about Republican advertising in that campaign. The financing of "issue advertisements" by the Democratic and Republican parties in the 1996 campaign has been a hot topic at the committee all week.

    The Senate deadlock, however, was the overriding concern Thursday. "There is no consensus yet on how we can come together on campaign finance," the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said after the first of two procedural votes failed to end debate and force a vote on an amendment to the highways bill.

    Supporters of a bill to revamp campaign financing conceded that their legislation was going nowhere this year, especially since Sen. Lott blocked any up-or-down votes on the legislation earlier this month.

    But the same supporters vowed to bog down the Senate until they extracted a promise from Lott to hold a full debate on the bill and allow senators to offer amendments to it early next year. The two cloture votes Thursday to end debate each mustered only 48 senators, 12 short of the 60 required to force a vote.

    Lott acknowledged Thursday that "this issue will come up again, rightly or wrongly." But he pleaded with his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, to allow the Senate to vote on other important bills first.

    But Daschle wants a detailed commitment from Lott now, while Democrats believe they have the tactical advantage of holding Senate business hostage until their demands are met.

    The Senate Republicans are divided over how to reconsider any campaign finance bill. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a main sponsor of the bill, wants the senators to reconsider his legislation and allow amendments.

    McCain's bill, which is also sponsored by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., would ban unregulated, unlimited contributions to political parties, and define more clearly advertisements that advocate issues and those that champion candidates.

    But other Republicans, led by Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, oppose virtually any changes, and argue that existing campaign finance laws need to be better enforced.

    Daschle faces a challenge in keeping the 45 Senate Democrats united in their filibuster, especially as this year's legislative session winds down and the popular transportation bill, which dispenses public-works projects to every state, twists in the wind.

    While the senators were wrangling on the floor, those on the committee investigating campaign finance practices in last year's elections spent most of their time giving partisan speeches.

    Sen. Thompson, the Tennessee Republican, complained again about the six-month lapse between the committee's request in April for videotapes and the release by the White House this month of tapes showing President Clinton at coffees with contributors to his campaign.

    Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the top Democrat on the committee, retorted that Republicans like Scott Reed, who was Bob Dole's presidential campaign manager last year, were refusing to respond to subpoenas.

    Representatives from the White House Communications Agency, an office staffed by the military that made the coffee tapes in question, said that the tapes had not been found earlier because a page in a fax requesting information about the coffees had been lost.

    Democrats also continued to point to a statement that Dole made last year about how the Republican Party was paying for television advertisements supporting his candidacy. Speaking by satellite in June 1996 to a meeting of ABC affiliate stations, Dole referred to a party-sponsored biographical ad about him and said, "It never says that I'm running for president, though I hope that it's fairly obvious, since I'm the only one in the picture."

    Democrats said the Dole statement illustrated how both presidential candidates were taking advantage of a loophole in the campaign finance law.

    Sen. Thompson's announcement that he wanted to hear from Babbitt resurrects the controversy that has swirled around a casino project that was championed by three Wisconsin bands of Chippewas. The Interior Department turned down the project in 1995.

    The project was killed in Washington after rival tribes hired a high-profile Democratic lobbyist, Patrick O'Connor, who had contacts with White House officials. The rival tribes also gave $270,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

    Babbitt has denied that White House lobbying affected the outcome, but an Arizona lawyer hired by the Wisconsin Chippewas said in a deposition that Babbitt had told him about the heavy lobbying campaign against the project and later told the governmental affairs panel that the secretary also mentioned the rival tribes' donations.

    As for Dole, he not only offered to appear before the panel but also suggested that Clinton volunteer to appear as well.




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