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A death match between friends

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Why is Chuck Hagel trying to kill John McCain's campaign-finance bill?

Sitting behind the wheel of his Lincoln, wearing wraparound shades and a deep melanoma scar on his face, John McCain looks like a B-movie hitman. As a matter of fact, he is trying to kill something: Washington's seamy money culture. The Arizona Senator has just finished an event with a 1,500-lb. pig named Rootie, his accomplice in an annual unveiling of the pork hidden in the federal budget. Now he is tearing the wrong way up a one-way drive into the Capitol for a press conference with conservative Blue Dog Democrats supporting his effort to drive the pigs from the trough. After a decade of frustration, McCain's campaign-finance-reform bill will finally get its hearing on the Senate floor, without threat of filibuster, this week.

To get this far, McCain had to triumph over his enemies. Now he has to defeat a pal, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who calls McCain his best friend in the Senate. Hagel still wears his MCCAIN FOR PRESIDENT button occasionally, and shows off a framed TIME cover of McCain inscribed "To my dear friend." Yet he has authored a rival bill that has emerged as the favorite disguise for those who want to look like reformers while leaving the system porous enough for Denise Rich to drive a pardon through. Hagel's proposal does not ban soft-money contributions but simply caps them at $120,000 per two-year cycle, though critics calculate that wealthy folks could still give half a million dollars. When I ask McCain why he can't talk some sense into his brother-in-arms, he says their differences run too deep. "Chuck takes soft money, which is an illegal loophole now, and enshrines it in the law."

Hagel wouldn't be such a threat if he weren't such a good guy. He is "McCain without the attitude," as one colleague puts it. A Vietnam War hero, part maverick, part go-to guy for moderates of both parties, Hagel is that highly evolved political creature: principled but open for business. The Reform Over My Dead Body folks, such as Senator Mitch McConnell, can talk to him, as can the President, who has met with Hagel three times on reform. Although Bush's just-released "statement of principles" differs from Hagel's bill in some respects, Bush would sign it, since it allows soft money. He would forgo tax cuts before he would sign McCain-Feingold.

Hagel doesn't see himself standing in the way of his friend's life's dream. "Don't make this into a Shakespearean struggle," he says. "This is not an issue between John and me personally. We've always known the day would come when we would go different ways." But of all the issues in all the world, why would Hagel pick McCain's signature bill to fight over? He's got his principles too. "John's bill has the unintended consequence of weakening political parties by depriving them of soft money, which will then go to darker, unaccountable forces," he charges--an argument critics find laughable.

For the moment, Bush is quietly praising Hagel, not wanting to scare off Democrats looking for a life raft after years of supporting McCain when he didn't have a chance of prevailing. Having raised more soft money for 2000 than G.O.P. Senators did (unlikely to be repeated unless Bill and Hillary don bellhop uniforms and sneak into the Lincoln Bedroom), some Senate Democrats are now as tempted as Republicans to cling to what McCain calls the "Incumbent Protection System," which returns more than 90% of both parties to federal office. After voting five times for McCain-Feingold, Louisiana Democrat John Breaux discovered last week that it is fatally flawed. He now favors Hagel.

Back in his office, McCain gobbles a tuna sandwich and meets with Colorado Representative Mark Udall, son of McCain's mentor, Democrat Mo Udall. He recalls his favorite Udall line on the difference between an Arizona cactus and a congressional caucus. "Here," he laughs, "the pricks are on the inside." McCain, who forgave the Vietnamese despite his captors' hanging him by his broken arms, is a chipper warrior, confident Hagel will lose. During Easter recess, the two may go to Ireland, where a pint has smoothed over many a grudge. "We were dear friends before," McCain says. "We'll be dear friends after."



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Cover Date: March 26, 2001

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