For Election Finance Reform Backers, Heat Is On


As the Senate prepares for a showdown over campaign finance reform, Democrats who have been the core supporters of a bill to ban unlimited donations to political parties are getting peppered by key allies with reasons to jump ship.

Organized labor denounces provisions that it says would silence union voices during the height of campaigns--a criticism AFL-CIO leaders intend to spotlight at a news conference today.

Democratic political pros ask whether the party is ceding too much to the Republicans by abolishing the unlimited donations, known as soft money. Civil libertarians rail against what they call unconstitutional limits on freedom of speech.

It's all enough to make a Democratic senator think twice about taking a position--favoring campaign finance reform--that had been reflexive in years past.

"It's true that there might be some knocking of knees, some nervousness, whatever you want to call it," acknowledged Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who is laboring to hold nearly 50 Democratic votes firm for the bill he is sponsoring with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "This is tough. This is hard to do."

While most Democrats remain publicly committed to the McCain-Feingold bill, the pressure they face demonstrates the enormous difficulty of crafting a measure that can clear Congress. With a two-week debate scheduled to start Monday, many Republicans are also maneuvering warily.

President Bush is readying his own statement of principles on campaign finances, a subject that drove a wedge between him and McCain as they squared off in last year's presidential campaign. A Republican aide on Capitol Hill confirmed Wednesday that Bush has discussed an alternative bill with its author, Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), at least three times in the last month. "The White House is generally supportive" of Hagel's efforts, said the senator's spokeswoman, Deb Fiddelke.

A White House spokesman, Ken Lisaius, declined to respond directly to whether Bush backs the Hagel bill. "The president believes this is the year when we may be able to pass some sort of campaign finance reform," Lisaius said. "He looks forward to continuing to work with people like Sen. McCain and Sen. Hagel to reach agreement on the issue."

McCain and Feingold dismiss Hagel's bill as a sham. Unlike their measure, it would limit, not abolish, soft-money donations to national political parties. The Hagel bill also would triple to $3,000 the quarter-century-old per-election limit on direct contributions to candidates for federal office.

Hagel's bill would not curtail soft-money donations to state parties--a loophole critics say enterprising fund-raisers would exploit.

As a candidate, Bush called for a ban on corporate and labor soft-money donations--but not on such donations from individuals. He also backed a measure, anathema to Democrats, that would force unions to obtain consent from members before using dues for political ends. Those provisions are not found in the Hagel bill in its current form.

Despite the rising flood of money in politics, a phenomenon that McCain and Feingold contend corrupts the legislative process, most Republicans are not especially eager to overhaul a system that they believe helped them gain control of the White House and Congress for the first time since the mid-1950s. There are, to be sure, some measures that many GOP lawmakers would support broadly. Chief among them are limits on union power and raising the limits on what are known as "hard money" donations, given directly to federal candidates.

Senate Republican leaders are not talking publicly about their tactics. In years past, they have blocked McCain-Feingold reform proposals by filibuster. But with the Senate now evenly divided between the parties, the GOP leaders consented to full floor debate.

A handful of centrist Republicans, mainly from the northeast, do back the McCain-Feingold bill. But for it to survive in the Senate, the bulk of Democrats will have to support it.

One Democrat who had voted in the past to allow consideration of a soft-money ban, Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, now says he would not vote for the McCain-Feingold bill in its current form. "There's concern in the Democratic caucus that [McCain-Feingold] does not create a level playing field," Breaux said.

Indeed, Democrats and Republicans raised virtually the same amount of soft money in the 2000 election cycle--more than $240 million each. But Republicans had a large edge in hard-money donations.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a constituency often aligned with liberals, has criticized the limits the McCain-Feingold bill would impose on party funding, as well as provisions that would regulate so-called issue advertisements. These are funded by outside groups that often inundate the airwaves in the weeks before an election.

"If Congress continues to move in this dangerous--and ultimately unconstitutional--direction, the only people who will be allowed to speak about the record of politicians will be politicians, [political action committees] and the press," ACLU official Laura W. Murphy said recently.

The ACLU has been a perennial critic of the McCain-Feingold reform effort. But the AFL-CIO's publicly critical stance is new.

The labor group has not taken a position on the bill. But its public denunciation of some provisions has left little doubt that the organization will be unable to support the bill unless it is substantially changed.

A major AFL-CIO concern is a provision that would bar corporate and labor spending on advertisements that mention or identify a federal candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Union officials argue the measure could dramatically reduce their clout in the days before an election.

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