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Senator John McCain Returns to Senate With His Message of Reform

Aired March 21, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The chair recognizes the senator from Arizona.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, he's back. John McCain is welcomed back to the U.S. Senate, but will his passion for campaign finance reform receive any welcome at all?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, an Al Gore supporter, and Congressman Roy Blunt of Arizona, chief deputy whip and House liaison to the Bush campaign.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE, and the return of the prodigal senator.

Bloodied but unbowed from his primary battles, John McCain returned to the Senate today, where all those senators who opposed his candidacy pretended to be glad to see him back. Disappointing those who speculated he might bolt to the Reform Party, McCain vowed to endorse the nominee of his own party without even bothering to mention George W. by name. And despite his success in the primaries, McCain said he would make no specific demands of Bush, but he also vowed to continue his crusade for campaign finance reform.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I will support the nominee of the party. I will support the nominee of the party, but I also will not abandon my reform agenda and those millions of people who are relying on me to pursue it.


PRESS: So he's back. Will anything change? That's our CROSSFIRE tonight. Now that he's become a national icon, will McCain have anymore influence in Congress or in this year's campaign, or will he and his message of reform soon be forgotten? -- Mary. MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Congressman, this crusade for campaign finance reform is -- you're on that bandwagon, have been for a long time, it's one of your crusades, Shays-Meehan is your bill obviously. Now, let's see how important it is. Let's see how many crusaders there are with you.

This is a post-primary poll, ABC News/"Washington Post" poll: single most important issue in deciding whom to support: moral values, Social Security, Medicare, taxes, education, world affairs, campaign finance reform way down there at 4 percent after everything else with abortion.

Do you have followers on your crusade?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D-MA), GORE SUPPORTER: We should, too. If you ask people in the country whether they feel decisions that are made in Washington are corrupted by money and the influence of money in American politics, they say yes. They say they want that influence of money reduced.

And I think John McCain's campaign for the presidency is an example of people flocking to his candidacy, independents, some Republicans, some Democrats as well. But I think it's an indication that people care about this issue. Here's a guy that ran against the Republican establishment, attracted all kinds of support in New Hampshire and elsewhere, and he made campaign finance reform a central part of his campaign. People care about it. Are they cynical? Yes, they're cynical. They wonder whether or not we can really have a clean system. But do they want the influence of money reduced? Absolutely.

MATALIN: Let me ask you specifically about that, because the exit polls do not support what you've just said about the McCain candidacy. What people liked about John McCain was John McCain. The thing they cited least about their support for him was campaign finance reform, in his victorious states, in the states he lost. Amongst his supporters, their least -- the thing they liked least or cared least about was campaign finance reform. That was not the basis of the support for John.

MEEHAN: Look, it was his independence, the fact that he said what he meant, the fact he was willing to take on the Republican leadership in the Senate, to work for campaign finance reform bill, and the fact that he did the same thing on gift ban, lobby reform, taking on the tobacco companies. They want a president who would be independent and that's what attracted people to his candidacy. But you can't say, Mary, that people in America don't feel that there's too much money being spent on American politics...

MATALIN: I'm not...

MEEHAN: ... particularly in the presidential campaign.

MATALIN: I am telling you, Congressman, what they did say. They didn't say lobbying gift ban. What they said about John McCain was duty, honor, country, patriotism, dignity restored to the White House. MEEHAN: That's what campaign finance reform is all about, cleaning up the system. That's what it's all about. All of those qualities are in to make John McCain's popularity. It has to do with taking on the special interests and, as he would say, stopping the iron triangle in Washington, and it resonated with people.

PRESS: Congressman Blunt, I think it was both the man and the message, and the many ways that McCain tapped into this yearning the people have to clean up the government -- to use that phrase again -- with campaign finance reform as the first step. What's interesting to me is how the two now nominees -- I think we can call them -- have reacted to this.

You know, Governor Bush was asked last week, did you learn anything from John McCain? He said, no, not really. Al Gore had a comment on that. I would like you to listen to it, then get your response.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I learned a lot from the primaries. Governor Bush said he didn't learn a thing from John McCain. He should have been taking notes from -- when John McCain was talking to him in those primaries.


PRESS: Don't you think, Congressman, that one of these candidates is reaching out to the McCain supporters and the other is basically saying get lost?

REP. ROY BLUNT (R-MO), BUSH SUPPORTER: Well, I think what we've got really is that John McCain is going to be supporting the Republican nominee. He's going to be meeting with the Republicans in the Congress in the morning to talk about what he can do to help our candidates and, specifically, there are no conditions. What he wants to see is a Republican Congress -- a bigger majority. What he wants to see is a Republican president.

I think that really what people were responding to was the straight-forward approach, his personal story, which is great. It brought a lot of energy to our primary and I think that's going to be good for us between now and November.

PRESS: Well, he has said he's going to support the governor, but he also indicated that he's going to be campaigning for congressional candidates who support his agenda and not going to be out there really hustling for Bush unless the governor does something, comes -- takes certain steps in his direction on campaign reform. You're one of the first supporters of the governor in the Congress. What is George Bush willing to do to get McCain to actively campaign for him?

BLUNT: Well, Bill, I -- you may have different information about the congressional candidates than I do, but I talked to the folks at the National Republican Congressional Committee today. They have been talking to the McCain staff and where he wants to go is where he's needed with no conditions about which candidates he helps. He wants to help Republican candidates in contests where it's going to make a difference.

I think that there will be a significant reaching out to McCain supporters. I think that the chemistry has been good in the past, will be good between Governor Bush and Senator McCain. I think he'll be campaigning for the ticket.

PRESS: Well, let me just give you one specific example, Al Gore has said to George Bush, let's get rid of soft money. We're not going to wait for you guys in Congress -- sorry, Marty -- to work it out. We don't have to wait. We'll just both agree, Republican Party, Democratic, no soft money in this election. Why doesn't George Bush call Al Gore's bluff and say, OK, you got a deal?

BLUNT: Well, because the president and Al Gore are out raising tons of soft money right now.

PRESS: No, no, no, no, but stop it now. He's got an offer to stop it now, both sides stop it now. Why doesn't Al -- George Bush say...

BLUNT: Yes, I think they have raised tens of millions of soft money last week. I'm not sure you can stop it.

PRESS: But so does George Bush.

No, but so does George Bush.

Why don't they just stop it now?

BLUNT: You know, what Governor Bush has said he was for is eliminating all soft money, corporate money and union money...

PRESS: But not individual.

BLUNT: ... any involuntary contributions from corporations and labor unions.

PRESS: But not individual, Congressman. Congressman, Senator McCain called that a joke.

BLUNT: Well, I don't think that's a joke at all. I think if you look at where the soft money comes from, the vast proportion of it comes from corporations and labor unions. The governor has said he's willing to do that. He's also set a standard of disclosing quicker, faster, fuller than any presidential candidate ever has.

I think there's room for campaign finance reform in the Bush agenda to start with, and it's constitutional. You know, the problem with lots of these campaign finance reform discussions is they really won't meet the constitutional test and we won't know it until...


MEEHAN: We just recently had a court decision that said you can have limits...

BLUNT: Well, actually, it was in my state of Missouri, as you know.

MEEHAN: That's right. So we do have limits. The other thing about George Bush is, how about in the last debate in the campaign? He said that in his heart he wasn't in favor of any limits of individual money, just disclosure. That's -- and that was an outrageous statement. If he isn't in his heart in favor of any kind of limits, what does that say about our campaign finance reform?

BLUNT: Senator Hagel says we ought to increase the limits, have disclosure. A lot of people are saying the Hagel bill is a bill that might have some opportunity.

MEEHAN: With unlimited contributions?

BLUNT: And the part of campaign finance reform that's unconstitutional is not limits. It's eliminating the freedom of speech of people who aren't even candidates. That's the big constitutional argument, as you and I know, and we have talked about on the floor.

MEEHAN: Right. And we have gone to great lengths in this bill to have a bill that will pass constitutional muster. I don't think that argument...

MATALIN: Without belaboring the specifics, which we're obviously not going to agree on here tonight, we can talk about politically, credibility on this issue.

Speaking of jokes, do you really not think it's hilarious that Al Gore is trying to get in front of this crusade? Here's what he said as he talked about his passion for his conversion on campaign finance reform: "I made a mistake going to that Buddhist temple. I made a mistake in making telephone calls from my office. And I have learned from those mistakes. I have a passion for campaign finance reform that is fueled in part because of the pain of those mistakes."

Congressman, there's a long history of pain for this guy. He launched his '88 bid by getting together a group of guys who had pledged to contribute $250,000 a piece, not the $100,000 that Bush's Pioneers are raising. In '92, showing his worth on the ticket within 24 hours of being picked to be on the ticket, he raised $1 million. In '96, he was dubbed the solicitor in chief by the Democratic National Committee.

PRESS: Is this the life history of Al Gore, what is this?

MATALIN: No, I am telling you what this guy is paying by fund raising and I haven't even gotten to the abuses. He needs a truckload of Tylenol. Come on, this is credible?

MEEHAN: Mary, look, nobody comes -- neither party comes to this debate with clean hands. The fact is the last presidential campaign had abuses on both sides, Republicans and Democrats. The question is who is willing to clean it up?

Now, we have a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans in the House that have passed a campaign finance reform -- a modest effort. We want to see it passed in the Senate. John McCain has made a presidential campaign out of it. Al Gore will sign that bill and George Bush won't. It's really that simple. One is for campaign finance reform and one isn't.

BLUNT: No, no. Governor Bush has put out a whole set of campaign finance reform items. He was the first candidate ever to on a daily basis make all of this contributions known and public. This election, though, at the end of the day is not going to be decided on campaign finance reform.

MEEHAN: You better hope it isn't.

BLUNT: It's going to be decided on who the American people believe, and I think Al Gore trying to suggest that this is an issue that he is totally committed to actually hurts him at the end of the day.

MEEHAN: He's got a career in the United States House of Representatives and the Senate supporting campaign finance reform.

BLUNT: Yes, as a matter of fact...

MEEHAN: He's supported public funding.


MEEHAN: And I've sat at meetings over at the White House on campaign finance reform, and Al Gore has been there saying we've got to do everything we can to pass McCain-Feingold.


MATALIN: ... potty break from drinking all of that ice tea.

MEEHAN: He has been onboard with campaign finance reform throughout this administration.

BLUNT: He also said he...


MEEHAN: ... as president, he would sign a brief over to the FEC on...


BLUNT: He also said he cosponsored...

MATALIN: OK, OK, we're getting into the minutia. What we're really talking about tonight is John McCain's return. We don't know what his impact will be on the race. More of that when we come back. But we're so glad he has returned, and apparently, he is too. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCAIN: I know that things haven't been nearly as interesting in my absence. You'll have to ask my colleagues. I'm still -- I have announced my candidacy again this year for Miss Congeniality.



MATALIN: Welcome back.

John McCain returned quietly to his old digs in the Senate, referenced during his insurgent campaign as the home base for the Death Star. There were no attacks today, but a warm welcome for him and a pledge to pursue the reform agenda from him. In what form and to what end? For a take on the McCain aftermath, Gore and Bush congressional supporters Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan, in Missouri, Congressman Roy Blunt -- Bill.

PRESS: Congressman Blunt, without getting into details of any specific legislation, I'll give you a couple of examples that John McCain might have cited on the campaign trail. And I want to add, these are from "Roll Call," the newspaper we all see from the Hill. I want to quickly add, these are both Republican examples, but if I dug and had more time, I could give you Democratic examples, because as Marty just said earlier, I think both parties on this issue are just as bad.

But here's the first, a headline from "Roll Call" the other day: "GOP Seeks Gain from China Issue." So the big debate over permanent trading status for China. Republican National Committee sending letters out to corporate executives, saying here's this big bill coming up, we need your money, turning one of the most important policy votes in this country into a cash register. Do you have a problem with that, congressman?

BLUNT: You know, I think what I have a problem with, Bill, is if we didn't have the way -- the money to put a message out, the message would be totally dependent on what folks in the media decide is important about that election. That's why you -- how else would you do this if you didn't raise money? Certainly, CNN is not going to give free time.

PRESS: I wish we were as powerful as you people may think we are, congressman.

Here's another example. It says "Representative Thomas Under Fire Over Eli Lilly Fund Raiser." This is Bill Thomas from California. He's one of the key Republicans for drawing up the legislation on what kind of prescription coverage is given to seniors in the new legislation. He's holding a fund-raiser in that process for $2,000 a head, exclusively for executives from the pharmaceutical industry. I mean, isn't that just, again, a blatant -- Congressman, it makes people think -- I am not saying it is -- makes people think this Congress is up for sale? BLUNT: Well, one of the things that Governor Bush actually proposed was no fund-raising during the congressional session.

PRESS: I think that's a good proposal.

BLUNT: And he's made a number of other proposals just like that to work -- to remove that perception from the system.

PRESS: I'm sorry. I guess my question is, with so many examples, you could go on and on and on. Isn't this an issue on which you believe the people are really demanding action? Shays-Meehan or McCain-Feingold -- why don't you do it?

BLUNT: Well, you know, when you start talking about the real issue that begins to get people's attention when you start saying that the third groups that aren't part of political campaigns can't spend money to mention somebody in public office 60 days before an election, when you say that we're going to leave this message to somebody else in the media who is going to determine the message, that almost always turns the argument around.

MATALIN: Can I go there, congressman, because I just don't get how this is corrupt? Say, you, congressman, have a hundred percent ADA rating. Your big issue is tobacco. ADA, Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal thing -- say what it is. But he knew he was a liberal.

MEEHAN: Let's just say.


MATALIN: OK, let me get to my hypothetical here. And you have long been for the tobacco tax. So say a bunch of mothers in Massachusetts, "Mothers Against Stinky Smokes," OK, MASS from MASS, they ban together, they voluntarily amass contributions and they run spots on behalf of your effort or against the efforts of your opponents who do not want the tobacco tax. Why is that corrupt? Why isn't that freedom of speech?

MEEHAN: They can do that under the law. They can do it if our bill passes, absolutely can still do it. The only time when our legislation goes into effect, if somebody runs a negative ad on Roy, let's say, 60 days before an election, the public has the right to know where the money came from, so it should be fully disclosed, and you shouldn't be able to use union money or corporate money in order to do that.

That's all our legislation does. Everyone ought to be able to agree on this. Union dues money and corporate Treasury money has been illegal to be used once -- union dues since 1947 and since 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt signed the corporate ban on contributions.

MATALIN: I'm not even going into paycheck protection. I am going to the essence -- and you just said what it is -- of real, true campaign finance reform. It's one and only one principle thing, and that is disclosure. Anybody should be able to run anything that's disclosed.

MEEHAN: Disclosure is a big part of it, there's no question.

MATALIN: And it's in Shays-Meehan, but let me say this, OK, so this is what Bush had to say about today about it: "Complete and rapid disclosure on all campaign contributions is a healthy campaign finance reform that can begin today and I'm proud that my campaign is taking the lead. It doesn't take a new law for a candidate to post campaign contributions on the Internet every day; it just takes a commitment to public disclosure." Which he is the first, and only and does it immediately.

Al Gore's response to that was, look it up at the FEC. They post it every month.

MEEHAN: OK. Wherefore...

MATALIN: Al Gore is not even pursuing the most fundamental...

MEEHAN: Did he disclose all of the people from his Pioneer group so that we know all of the people he had solicited for...

MATALIN: Yes, yes!


MEEHAN: But he's also disclosed all the people that they've asked.

BLUNT: The other thing to point out here...

MEEHAN: I'm all for disclosure.

BLUNT: The other thing to point out here too is Governor Bush made that decision last September. This is not a reaction to something that happened in New Hampshire or South Carolina.

MEEHAN: Right.

BLUNT: It's something he made very early in the campaign. As soon as they could technically get it done, he announced we're going to be the first campaign ever to disclose on a daily basis the money that comes in...

MEEHAN: And he's...

PRESS: Well, you know, let me just tell you -- I hate to be the skunk at the lawn party here -- but I think disclosure is a phony issue, totally phony. Sure, I'm all for it because I want to know everything about what comes into a campaign.

But if General Electric, for example, or General Motors writes a $100,000 check to some member -- soft money for some congressional campaign or some congressional district, I don't feel good about knowing that the next day: that GE just bought a seat in Congress or General Motors just bought a seat in Congress. BLUNT: But Governor Bush is opposed to that.

PRESS: I mean, it doesn't get to the essence of limiting the amount of money that's coming into the system, does it?

BLUNT: Well, if the money comes from enough sources and you know who they are, Bill, I don't really see how that's problem for people.

PRESS: But Congressman, unless you cap the amount of money coming in, you're going to have a situation like the Wyly brothers, go up to New York, spend $2.5 million. At first, they hide their name in front of -- some phony, phony committee. And, you know, that's the essence of it. Now, knowing that the Wyly brothers bought the ad, they disclosed it finally. Does that make me feel any better about it? Why should it?

BLUNT: But what Governor Bush says is, cap the money, eliminate, in fact, all the involuntary money. I think Marty said no money from corporations, no money from labor unions. We could do that, but there's no way to get an agreement to do that...

PRESS: Congressman, you just...

BLUNT: ... certainly in this election.

PRESS: Congressman, you just put your finger on it. What Governor Bush says is that unions can't do that, the corporations can't do that, but individuals can, like the Wyly brothers. And that's why John McCain called his plan camouflage and a joke. Why doesn't he fix it?

BLUNT: Well, I think that, you know, he's not calling Senator Hagel's plan that...

PRESS: Not yet.

BLUNT: ... which allows to give individuals to give money, it just caps the amount. I don't think he's going to be calling the Hagel plan a joke plan. And it just simply caps the amount at a high level.


MEEHAN: There's a loophole to have all of this soft money go to state parties. It is so wide even George W. Bush can support it. So he probably will support that.

BLUNT: You know, I think an interesting...

PRESS: Well, gentlemen, we have...

BLUNT: What we see as the debate is the Republican debate still between McCain and Bush. I think we're winning that -- all the energy is still on our side of this discussion.

PRESS: That's why we like it, because the debate goes on and it will go on more and more since John McCain is back in the Senate. And, Congressman, thank you very much for coming in...

MEEHAN: Thank you.

PRESS: ... and continuing the fight or maybe restarting it here on CROSSFIRE.

Of course, Mary Matalin and I get the last word. And I'll tell her why Bush will never get McCain's vote when we come back.


ANNOUNCER: Jump into the CROSSFIRE at Learn more about the debate, watch the show and chat with CROSSFIRE hosts, special guests and viewers all at one address.

PRESS: Mary, I have to tell you, I have dumped on George Bush so many times. For a change, I want to dump on John McCain tonight. I've got to tell you what: what a letdown to have McCain come back to the Senate, everybody is saying he's going to be full of energy. And instead, he just folds.

What he should have told George W. Bush is, you change your phony campaign reform plan or you're on your own pal, I'm not going to support you. What a wimp he turned out to be.

MATALIN: He's a class act. And he came back and he said he was going to do what he can do quite well which is go campaign for people in the northeast where he had a lot of support.

PRESS: What did he mean about the primaries when he was slamming Bush, saying he was a phony. Why does he suddenly...

MATALIN: He never said he was a phony. Don't put words in his mouth.

PRESS: He said his plan was. No, he said his plan was phony. So why did he just walk away?

MATALIN: Well, they have more in common that he does with your guy. And you said, teasing into this thing that you're going to tell me why Bush will never get McCain's vote. Well, just let me tell you, it's already getting...

PRESS: Do you want to know why.

MATALIN: He's already getting them. They're breaking to bush by 11 points. Read your own polls. And can I just say something else to you?

PRESS: Oh, wait a minute.

MATALIN: If you bring up these Wyly brothers one more time what about the NARAL sisters? You don't care about -- how come you've never...

PRESS: I -- wait a minute, wait a minute. I am an equal opportunity offender when it comes to campaign reform. I want to stop the soft money from the left and from the right. You guys just want to keep the, you know, Niagara flowing.

MATALIN: Rather have Niagara flows than you telling us what to believe.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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