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Will the House Pass Campaign Finance Reform?

Aired April 2, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight: the Senate passes campaign finance reform. Will the House follow suit? Or are some House Democrats having second thoughts?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts and Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio.

PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. McCain-Feingold is not yet law, but it's one giant step closer, passed the Senate early this evening big time, by a comfortable 59 to 41 margin with 12 Republican votes. For John McCain and Russ Feingold, it's a huge win, banning all soft money, which had been unregulated, and raising the limits on direct, hard money contributions to $2000 per year.

But there are still big bumps ahead. First: the House, where similar legislation has passed twice before. But this time, expect tougher sledding. Its fiercest opponent, Majority Whip Tom Delay, has promised to do everything in his power to kill it.

Next, the White House. Where President Bush opposes the measure, but may sign it anyway. And then the Supreme Court, where challenges to its constitutionality are ready to be filed.

Tonight, with two members of Congress: will McCain-Feingold become the law of the land? Will it clean up politics? Will it help or hurt political parties? Back again tonight, back by popular demand, sitting in on the right tonight: Julia Reed, contributor to both "Vogue" and "Newsweek."

Julia, good to have you back.

JULIA REED, CO-HOST: Thank you. It's good to be here. Congressman Meehan, now that McCain-Feingold is a reality and not just some easy symbolism, isn't it going to harder to count on the Democrats on your side to push this through? Republicans, after all, raised almost twice as much hard money last year in the year 2000. Why would you want to give up your only advantage, soft money?

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well, because the system has had a corrupting influence on our ability to get things done in Washington. It's been illegal since 1907 for corporations to contribute to campaigns and since 1947, for union treasury due's monies to be used.

And frankly, one of the reasons why we have gridlock in Washington, can't get a patients bill of rights, can't get prescription drug coverage for seniors, can't get protections for children in America for reasonable safety measures or against tobacco; because soft money is gumming up the works.

I think Democrats recognize the fact, we have to reduce the influence of this special interest money and it's just the right thing do, regardless of the fact that both parties maybe addicted to this soft money, it's the right thing to do.

REED: But the question is: will you be able to break the addiction of the members of your party? We have heard lots of grumbling on that side, that they really don't want to give that up. And they don't think it's fair. The senators, after all, did not give you all a millionaire loophole; you don't get to raise more money if you run against a rich guy. I mean, they sort of handed you a bill of goods and they have to sell it to your guy.

MEEHAN: Well, keep in mind the Senate has been the graveyard for this bill over the last four years, so there's a lot of momentum that's developed because of this great Senate victory by McCain and Feingold and other members of the Senate. Most of the votes in the Senate came from Democrats. Most of the votes in the House, when we pass this twice, came from Democrats.

We would not be at this point...

REED: But it wasn't real then.

MEEHAN: We wouldn't be at this point if it wasn't for the leadership of Dick Gephardt in bringing Democrats along. So, I think Democrats will support this bill.

REED: I look forward to seeing how successful Gephardt is.

PRESS: Congressman Ney, welcome to CROSSFIRE. Last week, I thought it was interesting in the Senate debate -- Mitch McConnell who has fought and successfully killed this bill year after year, this was last week, he stood up and he said, this bill going to pass and the president will sign it.

Now, I want to ask you a little reality test here. You opposed legislation, right? You are chairman of the committee of this legislation. Do you accept Mitch McConnell's prediction that it will pass and the president will sign it?

REP. BOB NEY (R), OHIO: I think something will pass. As we talk about the cemetery, I'm not the undertaker. Our committee will consider this bill. I mean, something will come out in some form, but I think there's some real serious problems with it and we shouldn't act as a rubber stamp for the Senate.

We have new members of Congress since this has been debated. The public has a different attitude -- a lot of the groups that were in fact saying, gee, I would like to have this, found out all of a sudden, they have a gag order on them 60 days before an election. So, there's a lot of changes in the bill, but as far as consideration of it, it will come out in its final form; I'm not sure about that either.

PRESS: Will, I want to ask you about those issue ads and those organizations in just a second. Majority Whip Tom Delay, The Hammer -- and he's proud of that title -- was on "Meet the Press" the other day. I mean, he has made it very, very clear that his sole aim, single handedly if he has to, is to kill this legislation. Let's hear Congressman Delay from "Meet the Press" on March 25.


REP. TOM DELAY (R-TX), MAJORITY WHIP: I'll do everything I can to protect the freedom of the American people. You bet. You bet. I'll work as hard as I can to beat this.


PRESS: Now as Congressman Meehan said, the American people want this; they made it clear; why would you follow Tom Delay in a suicidal march...

NEY: First of all, I am one of the deputy whips for Tom Delay, and if you didn't make that statement, I may not be supporting him for...

PRESS: Then why would you lead a suicidal march?

NEY: It's his job to do that and it's his job to stand up for free speech. But I'm saying, in the reality of the House, I believe that some type of bill will come forth, but I view this as campaign regulation more than I view it as campaign reform. So, there's nothing wrong in the system with talking about the fact that people have strong feelings both sides of this issue. But you know, we will consider this bill.

By the way, I went to Phoenix, Arizona and when you say to the American people -- I want to tell you this, Bill -- when you say to the American people -- three weeks ago I went to Phoenix, Arizona and had a hearing on this bill, because I'm proving to my friend Marty and Chris Shays I talked to today, we are not just saying, we not going to have hearings or kill this bill.

When we went out there, out of the 200 some seats that were open, not all those seats were full. There is no real groundswell; this is more of Beltway issue, more of a feel-good issue. And I think that what Tom Delay is referring to, very clearly, is the fact you can't gag people and you can't take the political parties. They're two existing and those who want to blossom and grow and destroy them.

REED: Congressman, I want to read you something that is a quote from a member of your own party, Representative Martin Frost. He says with this bill and I quote: "What we are doing is destroying the party system in America. The political parties would be neutered, and third-party groups would run the show."

Isn't he right? Aren't we -- we aren't just taking the money out of politics; we are taking the parties out for politics.

MEEHAN: Not at all. Parties can raise money under the legal limits hard money. In fact, I think it's better for political parties in America, to raise hard money -- smaller donation, get grassroots...

REED: You know as well as I do they will raise a heck of a lot less...

MEEHAN: But I don't think it does any good to have members of Congress, the president, the vice president, calling up companies saying, give me one million dollars for this...

REED: So, instead...

MEEHAN: Give me half a million dollars.

REED: Instead, special-interest groups and rich individuals, with axes to grind, can spend all the money they want. They won't have a gag order. And they will be able to do when they want.


REED: The National Abortion Rights Action League announced a 40 million effort to elect only pro-choice candidates. They will have that kind of unregulated money; they will be able to buy as much TV time as they want. But parties won't be able to have that kind of access to money. You know as well as I do, they can't raise the same amounts of hard money.

MEEHAN: Julia, you are assuming that the $500 million in soft money, which, by the way, is up 98 percent since the '96 election -- you are assuming that that money is all going to go to these interest groups. It's not. The reason why companies and wealthy individuals are giving this soft money is because the leadership of the parties is asking them to.

You know what they have? They have an interest in legislation before the Congress.


MEEHAN: These people are trying to influence legislation. It's why we don't have the patients' bill of rights.

NEY: It's America.

MEEHAN: You have both sides. Look, money shouldn't determine whether or not we have a patients' bill of rights.

REED: But it will! But it will! (CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Congressman, you made a good point; go ahead.

NEY: Well, you know, I just want to make a point about political parties: 21 years ago, I ran against former Congressman Wayne Hayes, who chaired this committee, who's a very powerful figure, beloved back home, went back and was elected to the Ohio legislature.

I couldn't get the powers to be that the political elected incumbency group to support me. I was too young and couldn't win, et cetera. The party supported me. I think if this bill were in place 21 years ago, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight, because this -- it does away with voter registration X amount of days before. You can't get out the vote. We want to encourage people to vote. We want...

MEEHAN: We do. We do. And you know what? Voting rates have been going down, you know why? Because people look at this system, where companies contribute one million dollars; wealthy individuals, millions of dollars; and they are disgusted by it. That's why people are turned off by this system. The soft money abuse has a corrupting influence in what we do.

PRESS: Let's -- by the way, I'm a former state chair, state of California, largest state in the union, I know something about raising soft money and it stinks to have to do it; I can tell you that. $463 million dollars is what the two national parties spent in the 2000 election. Now, you've got to admit, Congressman Ney, that's just obscene.

NEY: I don't think either one of us like to did that or like to see that money. Let me tell you something: if you can make a phone call tonight to the owner of CNN and other media people and get some free advertising. You know, it doesn't get cheaper: You know that.

This has to be, as has been, you know, taken up through inflation, the cost of people to be able to get their speech out there.

And by the way, it's not just a company thing. Unions contribute, companies contribute.

As long as both sides can be in this, then it remains fair.

PRESS: I want to come back to the role of the political parties. And by the way, the McCain-Feingold does have some limits on how much stations can charge candidates for TV ads, and I think -- I think that's fair.

But I remember when a party did voter registration and the party did get out-the-vote efforts. That's what political parties ought to be doing.

Today, the parties are nothing but fronts for the candidates running these phony issue ads. They've become just recipients of soft money. So isn't it clear, if you get that money out of there and they're not running these ads, they'll get back to what they should be doing.

NEY: There should be full disclosure on these ads. But I will tell you, I view this as an incumbent protection. That's the real smokescreen behind -- I'm not saying necessarily with my colleague, Marty, but some of the members -- because they say, oh, woe is me, I ran last election, you should see what they said about me. That's a free country.

MEEHAN: Well, wait a minute.

NEY: As long as it's fully disclosed, everything's fair game.

MEEHAN: All right. Before we start calling this an incumbent protection bill, let's make it clear this soft-money system has been growing. In 1996, 94 percent of all the incumbent members of Congress who ran for re-election were re-elected. In 1998, it went up to almost 98 percent. In the 2000 election, it was almost 98 percent.

How can you get more pro-incumbent than that...


... 98 percent?

NEY: I'm not saying that I'm not for some form of a limit on soft money, or to look at some form of a limit. But I'm going to tell you something: The balloon is going to bulge somewhere else on this. You know it and I know it. And this is incumbent protection, because here's what happens: I'm the rich incumbent. I have a million dollars with my campaign account. I make my own issue advocacy ads around the law. But lo and behold, my little challenger, who can't get either pro-choice or right to live to fund ads for him.

I've got the edge. The average American is going to be hurt in this.

PRESS: All right. We're going to take a break, congressman. And when we come back, the $64,000 dollar question: Will any of this stand up in the United States Supreme Court? Back with more CROSSFIRE.


REED: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Julia Reed, sitting in on the right.

John McCain finally got his way, but what does that really mean? Are we really taking the evil money out of politics?

Our guests tonight, Congressman Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, co-sponsor of the House's version of campaign finance reform, and Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee -- Bill. PRESS: Oh, that evil money. All right, Congressman Ney, I know what you guys are really up to, you and Mitch McConnell and Tom DeLay. You're going to throw as many roadblocks as you can in front of this, and then let it pass, let Bush sign it, which you know he's going to do, and then take all of your guns right up to the Supreme Court and think you can kill it.

Isn't that your plan?

NEY: No, it's not. Not at all. I've already had a public hearing on it. You know, I've committed to my colleague Chris Shays, I commit right here on television tonight to Marty Meehan that we're going to have open and fair process. And the other thing we're going to do, you know, you can't wrap this up and rubber stamp it in three weeks.

Not everybody can drive or fly to Washington, D.C. in this country. I've had hearings in Phoenix. I'm working with Mr. Hoyer, the ranking member. We're going to go out and have public hearings on this and hearings in the Capitol.

We're going to have full, open debate. We're not going to gag anybody in this. We're going to have a full, open debate on this as I think it deserves.

PRESS: Well, but I want to come back to the court for just a second, because if you -- if you -- and I believe you, but I know there are some others, and Mitch McConnell's already indicated, they say the court is going to slap this down. They say it is unconstitutional.

So my question to you is -- and they're basing it on this decision 25 25 years ago, Buckley v. Valeo -- right? -- which says basically somebody can spend as much money as they want. But that decision also said you can limit campaign contributions to 1,000.

So if the court already once said you can limit contributions, isn't the court going to say McCain-Feingold or Shays-Meehan is constitutional?

NEY: This bill is unconstitutional, and I'll you why. I'll tell you why, Bill. You can't tell Gun Control Incorporated or right to life and all the people that donate to it and work hard for their issues that they have a gag order put on them. And you know, the other thing: We took an oath of office to uphold the Constitution. And if this bill is constitutional and is well-thought-out and well- planned and went through the system, you know what, let's talk about severability or nonseverability. The authors are afraid of this unless it has the severability issue in it. They're afraid it.

We want to pass a bill in the House that meets constitutional muster.

MEEHAN: Let me make it clear. There is no gag rule in this bill. Any issue group in America that wants to run issue ads can run issue ads. However, if they want to run campaign ads, then they have to use hard money and they have be regulated, if it's political advertising. But there's nothing in this bill -- people can run issue ads on whatever...


NEY: I can -- I can prove to you.

MEEHAN: And the bill is constitutional. John Citizen is running against you or running against me. We have a million-dollar campaign account, which a lot of members of Congress do. I can run ads all day long telling how great Bob Ney is or Marty Meehan. And guess what, John Q. Citizen, who's supported by a pro-choice group or right-to- life group -- depends on what you want to choose -- you know, that group is shut off 60 days beforehand because they took the bad money versus the good money.

REED: OK. Fellas, I feel like I'm getting a preview of what's getting ready to be like a much messier fight in the House. I mean, everybody was surprised by how easy actually this went through the Senate, and McCain in today's "Newsweek" attributed it to this.

"They wanted to be rid of it. They knew, like bad pennies, we'd keep showing up."

Now, we know that John McCain keeps showing up. He didn't win the presidency, but he cannot stand to leave the limelight. But don't you think that's true, you know. I mean, the Republicans just sort of caved because they knew McCain wasn't going to go away, and then they drop-kicked it to you guys to duke it out.

MEEHAN: Well, I think part of the reason why Republicans may have caved, if you look at the hot Senate races around the country the Republicans lost, campaign finance reform was an issue.

I think the fact is the American people -- the American people want to end this soft money system. They get it. They understand that the reason why we don't have important legislation like prescription drug coverage is because the pharmaceutical companies contributed $15.7 million in soft money.

NEY: And the trial lawyers...


MEEHAN: This system -- and the trial -- that's exactly right. The trial lawyers contributed millions of dollars, and the HMOs contributed to the other side. That's why we don't have a patients' bill of rights.

REED: All right, let me ask you this.

MEEHAN: The American people get it, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, and the American people want this system changed.

REED: All right. What do you think the American people are going to feel like when they have to start being the targets of like hard money raisers? I mean, when candidates have to rev themselves up -- I mean, you are never going to -- you have never seen the kind of barrage of junk mail and e-mail and all those dinner-time calls that people say they hate even more than that evil soft money.

MEEHAN: Do you think -- you think they'd rather have the HMOs and the trial lawyers and the pharmaceuticals determine what the policy is going to be in this country.

REED: I think we're going to see after 2002.

NEY: I think call everybody we don't like. If you don't like this (UNINTELLIGIBLE) stop them, and I'll stop the other one.

MEEHAN: No, no. It's illegal...

NEY: Marty, you can't stop speech.

MEEHAN: ... to use corporate money and give contributions above the legal limit. That's all.

NEY: You know what Americans care about? They care about tax relief. They care about education. They care that their kids can barely put gasoline in there, and they're out there going to cars, and their cars. Their home heating has doubled, and that's what they care about.

Now, this is an inside-the-Beltway...

MEEHAN: And do you know what they know? They recognize the fact that we're in gridlock on those issues because of the money that's corrupting the process.

NEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this is regulation -- the average person is not going to be able to run for office.

PRESS: Congressman, I'm going to give you another reality test. This bill is going to pass. George Bush must sign it. Wouldn't you have to agree there's no way that George Bush can veto McCain- Feingold?

NEY: Bill, the art of politics is compromise. We've come to a compromise agreement in the sense -- I won't speak for the president -- but don't take it to the bank that he'll veto it. Yes, sir, don't take it to the bank that he would veto a pure bill. A pure bill...


PRESS: Which -- which is your way of saying that if this bill passes in its present form, the way it's passed the House and the way it's passed the Senate, that George Bush is going to sign this legislation?

NEY: Don't take it to the bank that he won't.

PRESS: I've tried to get you to say it the other way. NEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) don't take it to the bank that he won't. And my point is those who thought they had a free ride may not necessarily have a free ride. I won't speak for the president -- but may not.

PRESS: Well, let me suggest then why you have another plan in your hip pocket, and I think Charlie Rangel -- Charlie sees through all this stuff -- he knows exactly what you guys are trying to do, which is pass something in the House and then get it into conference committee and then (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Here's Charlie Rangel. Let's let Charlie explain it.


REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: The Republicans in the House and the Senate want to kill campaign reform so badly, but politically, they don't want their fingerprints on it. It's going to pass the House, and it's going to pass by a very small margin. And it won't be much help from our Republican friends. But you bet your life on it, in conference, they're going to put a poison pill in it, and it will never reach the president's desk.


PRESS: He's got you, doesn't he?

NEY: No, he doesn't. I'll tell you, Charlie's a good, articulate member of Congress. He doesn't have us.

You know, everybody talks about the poison pill, their version of the poison pill. That's a smokescreen. I mean, there's no particular poison pills. I mean, this is -- the elements to this bill are very controversial. But what we're not going to do is to again stop free speech, destroy the average man and woman's chance of running for office.

But I'll tell you what, we could pass a bill that won't go to conference. We could, if we work together together, Marty, on a bipartisan basis, the new spirit of America.

MEEHAN: You say this is controversial, but it has overwhelmingly passed the House twice. This is not that controversial. The American people want it.

NEY: A lot of people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) about the bill.

MEEHAN: We're going to send it to the president, and if the president may not sign this bill because of political conviction, political expediency will require that the president sign this bill. We're going -- we're doing the right thing in the House.

PRESS: Julia said it earlier. She's right. This is a preview of this hot debate in the House of Representatives. It ain't going to be easy. It's going to be fun. We'll be there, and we'll have you back to talk about it. And Julia Reed and I, we'll be back to give you our version of the perfect campaign finance bill. We call it closing comments, coming up.


PRESS: You know, Julia, this is a big day, I think, not so much for John McCain -- it's a big day for John McCain and Russ Feingold. It's a big day for the American people and people who believe still in the political process and want to take part in it without having to write a $100,000 check.

REED: Oh, please, Bill. It's a big day for all the fringe groups and nuts out there that are going to get all this money. Having said that, I think President Bush will sign this bill anyway, because nobody in that White House wants to make a martyr of John McCain.

PRESS: No, that's right. He will sign it, otherwise he'd be the reformer without results.

But listen, I'll come back. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) over those fringe groups. I don't care if the fringe groups get the money. At least the politicians won't be for sale, and I think that's the problem.

People -- as John McCain says, it puts a cloud over everybody in the system. This bill will at least take part of that cloud away. Don't you agree?

REED: No, I don't, because I don't think the politicians are for sale. I think that these cancel out. I mean, you know, groups on one side get money, groups on the other side get money. I mean, it's not holding us hostage. I mean, it's going to be terrifying to see what happens as a result of this, I think.

PRESS: I think it will be a cleaner system. Maybe I'm just too liberal or too naive.

REED: Too naive. Too naive.

PRESS: But I like it. All right, from the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. I'll see you later in THE SPIN ROOM.

REED: From the right, I'm Julia Reed. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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