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McCain-Feingold Again Hobbled By Little Impetus For Change

By Carroll J. Doherty, CQ Staff Writer

In many ways, the political climate has never been more favorable for overhauling the campaign finance system.

Almost no one in Congress believes that existing fundraising laws are doing anything to stem the flood of big money into politics. Polls show the public is fed up with the current system.

And the Senate will soon cast the first up-or-down vote of this session on a major bipartisan campaign finance bill. The vote will come on a procedural motion, but the mere fact that it will occur represents a hard-earned victory for the bill's proponents.

But none of this has generated much in the way of momentum for pro-overhaul forces. And Congress, which has not enacted campaign finance legislation since Jimmy Carter was president and disco ruled the airwaves, seems unlikely to reverse that trend this year.

Why has one of the worst political finance scandals since Watergate done so little to boost prospects for legislation in this area?

In part, it may be because the media and much of the public have begun to regard the continuing revelations of fundraising abuses as so much background noise. Over the past few weeks, that scandal has been shoved aside by allegations that President Clinton had sex with a former White House intern.

In addition, said Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, as bad as the abuses were in the 1996 campaign, they did not really touch members of Congress directly. Kerry speculated that it would take an even bigger scandal, perhaps one in which members of Congress themselves faced investigation or prosecution, to force legislative action.

Opponents of campaign finance legislation contend that the public is not clamoring for new fundraising laws because most people are savvy enough to understand that money will flow into the political system regardless of how many barriers Congress might erect to stanch it.

"It's like water," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah. "It goes under or through anything you put in its way."

Missing: Public Outrage

Senators on both sides of the issue repeatedly point out that until public disgust with the system is translated into a strong popular push for new legislation, the status quo is likely to persist. While polls show the public is fed up with the current system, they also show that the public is cynical about politicians' ability to fix it.

"Without public pressure, it's not going to happen," said Kerry, an overhaul proponent. "And that pressure isn't there yet."

With the Senate set to renew its debate Feb. 23 over a bipartisan campaign finance package (S25) sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., the struggle seems to have lost some of its drama.

Indeed, senators might be experiencing a sense of deja vu, because the legislative battle lines appear to have changed little from last fall, when dueling filibusters over the McCain-Feingold bill left the Senate deadlocked.

The legislation would ban "soft money," the unrestricted donations to political parties that are meant to be used only for party-building activities -- but which often find their way into campaign activities. The bill would also place new restrictions on issue-oriented ads, which are not supposed to support individual candidates, but which in practice often do.

Certainly, proponents of the legislation have gained new ammunition to buttress their contention that the fundraising laws need to be revamped. "In 1996, the federal campaign finance system collapsed," Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said in the draft report on the panel's investigation into fundraising abuses.

Both parties continue to raise soft money in record amounts -- a total of $67.4 million in 1997, up from $59.2 million in 1995 (both non-election years), according to Common Cause, an advocate of tighter fundraising laws.

In addition, McCain and Feingold won a commitment last fall from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to permit a vote on a motion to table, or kill, the measure. That might not seem like much, but Democrats had to threaten to shut down the Senate last fall merely to win that pledge from Lott, who vehemently objects to most new restrictions on political fundraising.

Lott's attempt to table the McCain-Feingold bill is likely to fail, which should provide the measure's proponents with a badly needed moral victory. During last fall's struggle to break a GOP-led filibuster against McCain-Feingold, 52 senators -- all 45 Democrats and seven Republicans -- repeatedly voted to limit debate on the issue.

But even if all 52 of those senators oppose Lott's tabling motion, that will leave McCain and Feingold where they were last fall, well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster and pass the legislation.

Equally important, Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has become the arch-foe of pro-overhaul forces, are dusting off the so-called Paycheck Protection Act to attach to the McCain-Feingold bill.

That proposal, which would bar labor unions from using member dues for political activity without first gaining their members' consent, strikes at a key Democratic constituency. Proponents of McCain-Feingold have decried the proposal as a "poison pill" intended to kill the bill.

The union dues proposal gives heartburn to pro-labor Democrats, who last fall had to mount their own filibuster to block it. That muddied the debate and distracted attention from the GOP-led filibuster aimed at McCain-Feingold.

How the process will unfold this year remains a mystery, because Lott and McConnell have yet to reveal their strategy. "It wouldn't be very smart for me to tip my hand, now would it?" McConnell said shortly before the Presidents Day recess.

But with typical directness, McConnell left no doubt about what he believes the outcome will be. "It doesn't matter when it comes up, we'll beat it," he said. "This bill is an irrelevancy."

Snowe's Gambit

While McCain-Feingold appears to be destined for the same fate as last fall, Maine Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe has entered the fray with a last-ditch attempt to forge a compromise.

She has been working with campaign finance scholars and political experts, including Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, to modify the McCain-Feingold bill in ways that could help it attract increased GOP support without alienating Democrats.

Snowe, who has also been consulting with Carl Levin, D-Mich., and GOP moderates James M. Jeffords of Vermont and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, admitted she faces an uphill battle. But she said she believes her proposal will appeal to members of both parties.

The plan, as described by Snowe, would significantly alter McCain-Feingold in a number of areas. That bill seeks to stem the tidal wave of politically oriented "issue advocacy" ads by more clearly defining the difference between ads that promote causes and those that actually support candidates.

But numerous legal scholars are convinced that the provision would not pass constitutional muster. So Snowe's revised proposal would drop the controversial language, substituting a requirement that interest groups such as the Sierra Club and the National Right to Life Committee disclose the sources of funding for any ads they run in the 60 days before a general election.

Snowe also wants to smooth some of the rough edges from the "Paycheck Protection Act" by prohibiting both unions and corporations from using funds to underwrite broadcast ads.

Given the extent to which both sides are dug in on this issue -- all Democrats in favor of McCain-Feingold, most Republicans behind the union proposal -- Snowe may have embarked on a fool's errand.

Reached at home in Maine, Snowe acknowledged that she had yet to line up a single pledge of support. Democrats appear to be particularly wary, because McCain and Feingold have already significantly scaled back their original bill by dropping several provisions backed by Democrats to garner broader support.

"It will be difficult for both sides to swallow," she said. "Both sides will be affected by this."

What is striking about the campaign finance debate is that while reform proposals have proliferated -- more than 100 such bills have been introduced in this Congress -- there have been few serious attempts at compromise. Snowe's effort is an exception.

In a normal legislative debate, lawmakers routinely try to cobble together a lowest common denominator approach that might have broad appeal. But Congress is so badly balkanized over this issue that no one seems inclined to give ground.

Take a simple ban on soft money, which many campaign finance experts say would represent an important first step in putting the brakes on the political money chase. "That's the only magic bullet out there," said Greg Kubiak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Republicans view such an approach skeptically because they hold a commanding edge over Democrats in raising these funds. Democrats also worry about a soft money ban, because they fear Republicans would be able to easily outdistance them in raising tightly regulated "hard money," which can be used directly for campaign activities.

Still, 149 members of the House -- 115 Democrats and 34 Republicans -- recently signed letters requesting that GOP leaders bring a proposal banning soft money to the floor next month. House Republican leaders have agreed to schedule a debate in March on various campaign finance proposals, though they have not promised a vote on prohibiting soft money.

FEC Weighs Action

Meanwhile, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is exploring the idea of acting on its own to prohibit national party committees from raising soft money. While the FEC's own internal partisan divisions make a unilateral move by the agency unlikely, a strong push by the FEC on this controversial issue could have the effect of casting a spotlight on Congress' inaction.

Snowe is certain that, no matter what happens during this session, the issue of campaign finance will loom large at the voting booth next fall. "There'll probably be a new [fundraising] record this year, so it'll be an issue," she said. "It's embedded in the public consciousness."

But Kerry is not so certain. Republicans don't seem to be running scared because of their opposition to the bill, he said. "Until they become afraid of facing the voters over this," he said, "we're going to have a hard time making any headway."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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