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February 27, 1998

McCain-Feingold Bill Dies in Senate, at Least for Now


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    By ALISON MITCHELL

    WASHINGTON --The Senate on Thursday all but buried campaign finance overhaul effort for at least another year.

    Despite a yearlong investigation into the abuse-plagued election of 1996 and sometimes sensational hearings into the lengths that President Clinton's re-election campaign went to to raise money, the advocates of revising the campaign finance law could not, in the end, expand their coalition to triumph over a Republican filibuster.

    Instead, in successive votes of 51-48 and 45-54 Thursday, the Senate first failed to end debate on the main bipartisan overhaul bill and then on a competing proposal by Republican majority leader Trent Lott aimed only at organized labor. It takes 60 votes to cut off Senate debate and force a vote on legislation.

    With the Senate at a stalemate, Lott, a primary foe of the overhaul effort, removed both bills from the floor to clear the way for popular pork-barrel legislation to allot transportation projects to the states. Having cycled through familiar debate all week, no one objected.

    Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the major architects of the bill to overhaul the campaign finance law, promised to battle again another time. "We will not quit and we will prevail," McCain said at a news conference after the vote, standing on the lawn of the Capitol with his closest allies.

    But the group was under no illusions. When Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., mentioned some smaller steps that might be taken, like reinforcing prohibitions against fund-raising in public buildings, and then asked, "Who is going to be against that?" Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, muttered, "You'd be surprised."

    Democrats, who provided most of the support for the campaign finance bill, held open the possibility that they might fight on later this year. And the House has its own debate ahead late next month.

    But for all practical purposes, campaign finance overhaul now moves from the legislative to the political arena as an issue in the midterm elections.

    House minority leader Dick Gephardt immediately made clear that Democrats would showcase Republican opposition to the bill, which was co-sponsored by Sens. McCain and Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

    The debate, Gephardt said, showed "which party is really for campaign reform and which party is not."

    Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, predicted that his party would wield the issue against two Republican senators in particular -- Alfonse D'Amato of New York and Christopher Bond of Missouri.

    But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chairman of the Senate Republicans' campaign committee, said, "No one in the history of American politics has ever won or lost a campaign on the subject of campaign finance reform."

    McConnell said three groups that provide valuable grass-roots support to Republican candidates -- the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee -- had strongly opposed the McCain-Feingold measure. The groups maintain that the overhaul legislation would hamper their ability to spread their political message. The National Right to Life Committee has already mounted a radio campaign against Feingold.

    Having failed to pick up votes since last year, the advocates of financing revisions could only claim Thursday the comfort of majority support in the Senate. They predicted that voters some day would pay attention to fund-raising excesses and demand a change.

    During a week of test votes, a steady group of seven Republicans had joined with the Democrats to try to place new limits on money in politics.

    "There will be more indictments, there will be more scandals and there will be more convictions," Senator McCain said. "Their attention will be back then, because you'll be finding more people going to jail."

    Campaign finance overhaul has long faltered in a Congress that resists changing a system that benefits incumbents. But the advocates for revision had hoped to be propelled forward by public disgust at the abuses of the 1996 election, which saw the virtual collapse of the spending limits of the post-Watergate public campaign finance system.

    For a year and at a cost of $3.5 million, a Senate committee documented how President Clinton campaign in particular used all of the perks of office to attract large donations and how wealthy donors brazenly sought to purchase access to high-level decision-makers. Three Democratic fund-raisers have been indicted in recent weeks.

    But while the Republican majority put the spotlight on the president's more unseemly fund-raising efforts, it has fiercely resisted legislation that would eat into the Republicans' fund-raising advantage.

    The McCain-Feingold bill would ban the use of soft money -- unlimited, unregulated large donations to political parties -- and curb issue advocacy commercials by outside groups. The measure proposed that an issue advertisement could not use a candidate's name or likeness within 60 days of an election. It also would require greater disclosure of campaign donations.

    Proponents of the bill maintained that it would keep big contributors from corrupting the government; opponents said it violated constitutional guarantees of free speech and would not pass court muster.

    In closing debate Thursday, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the system was "corrupting and it ought to be changed." But McConnell, who led the opposition, said: "What the reformers want to do is shut everybody up. They want to shut down the discussion."

    McCain and Feingold won a symbolic victory early this week when the Senate rejected, 51-48, Lott's first attempt to table, or kill, their bill. Feingold said Thursday that he would travel the country with the message that "a majority of the Senate wants this."

    But across a week of test votes, while they had the support of the Democrats, they never won more than a steady seven Republicans, including McCain. That left them nine votes short Thursday of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster against the bill.

    But the proponents of campaign finance overhaul did better than Lott. He had offered a competing proposal to their bill that would have required unions, which heavily support Democrats, to get written permission before they could use their dues for political purposes.

    But he fell 15 votes short of being able to break a Democratic filibuster against his own bill, with additional Republicans loath to take on labor. D'Amato, for example, did not vote to end the debate.

    Democrats have said they will try to force the overhaul measure through again later this year by tying up other legislation. But McCain suggested Thursday that he would not back such an effort.

    "I personally don't know if there's any virtue in attaching amendments unless we can assure that we have any additional votes," he said. "You risk over time alienating some of your supporters."

    He said he would try to take the overhaul movement to the people, visiting the 30 states whose legislatures have pending campaign finance bills. Such laws would not apply to federal candidates.

    The battle over labor's ability to use union dues for political purposes is also being waged now across the nation.

    The AFL-CIO has announced that it plans to spend millions of dollars in a grass-roots effort to defeat a California ballot initiative and similar efforts in at least 14 other states to require written authorization from members for the use of union dues for politics.

    Meanwhile, Grover Norquist, a conservative organizer who is an ally of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has said that he hopes to have ballot initiatives or legislative proposals pending in at least 40 states by the end of the year to place such restrictions on labor.

    In the House, the campaign finance battle is set for late March. Last year Gingrich promised to present a wide range of proposals for debate, including ones to restrict soft money, reining in the unions, increase disclosure and insure that only U.S. citizens vote.

    But Republicans are still grappling over what kind of legislation they want to introduce, and the Senate deadlock has only relieved the pressure for quick action.




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