Reform phonies?

Are Democrats conspiring with Republicans to block McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform?

Published October 16, 1999 1:30PM (EDT)

Did opponents of campaign finance reform get a helping hand in their efforts to derail the McCain-Feingold bill Friday? That's what some on Capitol Hill are suggesting, and if it's true, the help came from the unlikeliest of places: two liberal Democrats who claim to be longtime reform advocates.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Bob "The Torch" Torricelli, D-N.J., offered a stronger substitute amendment -- which would have replaced McCain-Feingold with the much more comprehensive House version of the bill, offered and passed in the House by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass. A similar bill failed to get 60 Senate votes in February 1998 and the new amendment, should it replace the bill from Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., will certainly fail again.

The surprising move had Capitol Hill scrambling for answers and the staffs of the four leading campaign finance reformers confused as to what, exactly, Daschle and Torricelli were doing, and what was motivating them to do it.

"We always knew they [the Democrats] were going to try something like this," McCain said in an interview Friday afternoon. "Everyone in Washington wants to keep the status quo."

Added McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter: "It was a foregone conclusion that as soon as we got close to [the required] 60 votes [needed to push the bill forward toward a vote], Democrats would start jumping ship. Something's going on out there. Someone must be really scared that we're close to 60."

McCain and Feingold had scaled back their campaign finance reform bill in an attempt to make it more palatable and to make opposition to the bill less defensible. The current McCain-Feingold bill includes a ban on party "soft money" -- the unregulated, unfettered, limitless reservoirs of cash both parties are flooded with, which McCain has called "the most egregious" stink from the sewer that is the funding of the American political system.

The Shays-Meehan bill, on the other hand, includes a number of provisions -- including regulation and a pre-election day ban on "sham issues ads" -- which have limited support in the Senate. Reform activists accused Daschle and Torricelli of using parliamentary Machiavelliana to replace a bill that has a chance of passing with one that is all but guaranteed to fail.

It all made for a very confusing day where few knew who was doing what and to whom and why. Daschle's spinners claimed the Democratic leadership was just trying to get a "test vote" on the issue. But in doing so, Torricelli and Daschle were acting against the wishes of both senators offering the actual bill. Both Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, spoke out on the Senate floor opposing the day's weird machinations.

Senators and their staffs are full of speculation about Daschle and Torricelli's motives.

Daschle, who wants to be majority leader within his lifetime, and Torricelli, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), are said to like soft money. Republicans overwhelmingly kick ass on raising the regulated "hard" dollars, but there is rough parity when it comes to the respective abilities of the Democratic and Republican parties in accruing soft money.

Thus, the argument goes, Daschle and Torricelli oppose passage of the McCain-Feingold bill because of their belief that it robs the Democratic Party of its ability to play against the GOP in an area where it remains competitive. And both men want to elect more Democrats in 2000 and regain majority control.

Shamelessly opportunistic Torricelli is possibly the most disliked senator in recent history. He's a relative newcomer to the Senate, and his DSCC fiefdom is his only position of power. A steady influx of soft money helps him to stay a player. His colleagues might not respect him, but they like the campaign cash he's a master at raising for them.

Never before has the passage of McCain-Feingold looked this possible. As it stands right now, the McCain-Feingold forces count 53 votes of support, with the addition to their camp, a few days ago, of Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. McCain and Feingold need seven more votes. With at least five vulnerable incumbent Republican senators eyeing their 2000 races warily, there is a chance of enough Republican defections. Those vulnerable Republicans -- among them GOP Sens. Rod Grams of Minnesota, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Spencer Abraham of Michigan -- are said to worry about how a vote against the bill could be used against them in their races next year.

But, of course, these Republicans are also as dependent as nursing newborn kittens on the campaign money controlled by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., campaign finance reform's most steadfast opponent. McConnell has shown a willingness to refrain from helping Republicans who have supported campaign finance reform, such as former Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., who lost a race to Sen. Patty Murray last year without much help from the NRSC. McConnell instead channeled rivers of green to Feingold's challenger, Rep. Mark Neuman, who lost narrowly.

Earlier this week, the Senate Democratic caucus met and reportedly put the screws to Feingold, telling him they wanted to replace McCain-Feingold with Shays-Meehan. Feingold held firm, arguing that Shays-Meehan had already been offered to the Senate, and had failed.

Reportedly, some Democrats argued that if only soft money was banned, gobs of corrupt cash would still continue to flow into the electoral process through the unregulated "sham issue ads" that in theory don't advocate in favor of one candidate or another, but in practice clearly do. Republican interest groups (like the National Rifle Association or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) are richer and mightier than Democratic ones (including Handgun Control, Inc. and the League of Conservation Voters), they argued. You can't have true reform without banning those ads, too, they said.

"Are there reform phonies in the midst of all this? Absolutely," observed Common Cause legislative director Meredith McGehee. "But some of these Democrats passionately believe that just banning soft money isn't enough."

Feingold reportedly held firm at the Democratic caucus meeting, however, and McCain-Feingold was offered as it was.

And then on Friday, Daschle and Torricelli offered their amendment to replace McCain-Feingold with Shays-Meehan -- a bill that's bound to fail, as it did in February 1998.

McCain-Feingold's most recent convert, for example, Sen. Brownback, has said that he could support the strict soft-money ban in McCain-Feingold, but in no way could he vote for Shays-Meehan, since it includes a ban on "sham" issue ads.

The Senate was rife with conspiracy theorizing on Friday. A number of senior Senate staffers noted the surprising amount of time Torricelli and McConnell have spent talking on the floor this week. Since when do Torricelli and McConnell work together? Was a deal struck? Is this all just conjecture? No one, after all, has any evidence of collusion. Just what in the hell was going on?

"It's a classic Washington moment," said one senior Senate staffer. "Here you have the [campaign finance reform] ne'er-do-wells from the extremes of both parties finding common cause."

"The games are flying fast and furious from each side," says Common Cause's McGehee.

"It's a cynical game," McCain said.

The Senate will return to debate the issue Monday. On Tuesday there will be at least two votes, probably more. McConnell is expected to come at this with amendments on Monday or Tuesday.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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