Money talks, reform walks

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill died in the Senate on Tuesday. Again.

Published October 19, 1999 12:00PM (EDT)

What can you say about a 9-year old campaign-finance reform effort that died? That it was bold. And controversial. That it pissed off Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Bob Torricelli, D-N.J. And it was loved by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. And Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. And Common Cause. And the media.

The McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill died Tuesday as it failed to secure 60 "cloture" votes. Actually, it didn't die. It was killed. A contract hit.

It took a truly bipartisan effort to do the deed. The GOP leadership won the award for chutzpah by wrapping itself in the right to free speech while denying McCain and Feingold the chance to exercise that right on the floor of the Senate Monday night.

And although McCain vowed afterward to "never give up" and "to do everything we can" to continue the fight, prospects that this bill will pass in this Senate, with this leadership, both Democratic and Republican, are nil.

Tuesday's drama was more than just a rerun of old C-SPAN 2 footage, however. This time, the campaign finance reform effort was hobbled not only by GOP leaders like Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and McConnell, but by Democratic leaders as well. In the process, Torricelli revealed himself to be, in McCain's words, "as passionately opposed to reform as are the critics ... in my party."

When McCain was asked what he and Feingold could have done differently, he lobbed grenades at Lott, who failed to honor his "gentleman's promise" that he'd allow the bill five full days of debate. "Maybe we shouldn't have relied on the word of people that said we'd be allowed to have an open and total debate on the issue," McCain said, pointedly.

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way, McCain said. After years of beating their heads against the status quo wall in Washington, McCain and Feingold had learned a few lessons not only about their heads, but about the wall as well.

Thus, this year, in an effort to line up 60 senators to support just the basic premise that their bill should be voted upon, McCain and Feingold pared down the measure significantly.

In the end, their bill contained a ban on the unregulated unrestricted party cash known as soft money, as well as a fairly uncontroversial measure codifying a 1988 Supreme Court decision that requires unions to get permission from non-union members before using their dues for political purposes.

But from the moment McCain-Feingold '99 started its journey through the legislative process, it was a Dead Bill Walking.

Campaign-finance reform enemy No. 1 is, of course, McConnell, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee as well as the Senate Rules Committee. McConnell believes that, as he said on the Senate floor last Thursday, "the essence of this debate is indeed freedom -- fundamental First Amendment freedom of speech ... What the McCain-Feingold saga comes down to is an effort to have the government control all spending by, in support of, or in opposition to candidates, with a little loophole carving out the media's own spending, of course."

McConnell raised $37.6 million in soft money between January 1997 and June 1999 -- it's one of the major ways that he's been able to help the GOP both win and maintain control of the Senate.

The NRSC is his own personal fiefdom, where he steers cash to the opponents of reformers -- like former Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wis., who ran against Feingold last year -- and away from pro-reformers, like Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash., who lost in her challenge to Democratic Sen. Patty Murray with almost no help from McConnell or his NRSC.

Likewise, Torricelli, as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is happy with the friends and alliances his ability to raise soft money garners him. From January 1997 through June of this year, the DSCC has raised $23.5 million in soft money. To his colleagues, Torricelli's abrasive personality and general slipperiness are overshadowed by the big bag of campaign cash he holds in his dirty hands.

So when Torricelli stepped forward Friday to offer an amendment replacing McCain and Feingold's pared-down bill with the more comprehensive House bill offered by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., everyone on the reform side smelled a rat.

"The opponents of comprehensive reform oppose even the most elemental reform," McCain said on the floor Tuesday. "And Mr. President, those opponents abide on both sides of the aisle -- if not in equal numbers than in sufficient numbers."

Three from those sufficient numbers were Torricelli, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who gummed up the works on Friday by offering a series of confusing amendments that tied up what McCain and Feingold had hoped would be a clean amendment process.

But the Democratic leaders were just the jab in a one-two punch. The day before, McConnell and Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, trying to derail whatever meager momentum McCain-Feingold had, feigned offense at McCain's assertion that the prevalence of $100,000 soft-money checks rendered the political process "corrupt."

"For there to be corruption, someone must be corrupt," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday. McConnell challenged McCain to cite specific unseemly quid pro quos.

McCain demurred. "I do not intend to let this debate, which is about banning soft money, get into some kind of personal discussion. ... This system makes good people do bad things. ... I am not in the business of identifying individuals. I am attacking a system. I am attacking a system that has to be fixed and that [according to a poll by the Pew Charitable Trust] has caused 69 percent of young Americans between 18 and 35 to say they are disconnected from their government, that caused in the 1998 election the lowest voter turnout in history of 18- to 26-year-olds."

On Friday, McConnell and Bennett's crocodile tears were replaced by the fake caring smiles of Torricelli, Dachle and Reid. By trying to substitute McCain-Feingold's legislative pragmatics with a bill that had not a candy bar's chance at a fat farm of making it through the Senate (the more comprehensive Shays-Meehan House bill), the three liberal Democratic senators, according to McCain, "filled up the [amendment] tree, making other amendments meaningless."

McCain had anticipated the Democratic sneak attack. His speech decrying the Democrats' tactical maneuver last Friday had been written a full week before.

On Monday, McCain, grasping at straws and worried that there wouldn't even be a cloture vote at the end of the grim saga, reached for symbolism.

Trying to get just a symbolic vote on banning soft money, McCain made a motion to table the Reid amendment, which was basically just another version of the McCain-Feingold bill.

McCain then announced that he was going to vote against tabling his bill, and urged campaign-finance reformers to do the same, just so there could be a vote count of one sort or another.

"In just a few minutes, the Senate for the first time -- let me reiterate that, for the first time -- will go on record on the central issue in this debate: Should the Senate ban soft money," Feingold said. "A simple question. It has a simple answer. And soon, finally, we will see where each senator stands."

But McConnell wouldn't even let them have the symbolism. "Let me say to all my colleagues, particularly those on my side of the aisle who share the view of the majority leader and myself on this issue, that this motion to table is a meaningless vote and should reflect that fact. Consequently, I will be urging all of my colleagues to" -- joining McCain and Feingold -- "vote against tabling."

Thus, instead of a temperature taking on soft money, the Senate instead recorded a 93-1 roll call, a "meaningless vote," exactly as McConnell wanted it.

Tuesday came the death blow. Two votes on cloture. The first was on the Daschle substitute, basically just the Shays-Meehan House bill. Sixty votes were needed. All 45 Democrats voted for it, plus McCain, Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Chafee of Rhode Island, James Jeffords of Vermont, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Fifty-two to 48. Not enough.

Then the vote on cloture on the Reid substitute, basically just the pared-down McCain-Feingold Senate bill. All 45 Democrats voted for it, as did McCain, Collins, Snowe and Thompson -- but Specter and Chafee defected.

Three new Republican senators joined the crowd, however: Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, William Roth of Delaware and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas -- the latter of whom had been urged to support the bill last week by his younger brother in the House.

Still, when the dust had cleared, it was 53 to 47. Not enough.

But some reform advocates said they were heartened. "Even though passage of a bill was again blocked by the pre-Halloween trick-or-treat parliamentary maneuverings of reform opponents, eight Republican senators have now broken ranks with McConnell, including three new Republicans," said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause.

Harshbarger added that "other Republican senators are becoming increasingly uncomfortable in following lock-step behind Sen. McConnell and his defense of the corrupt status quo. A group of five additional Republican senators, led by [Nebraska] Sen. Chuck Hagel, signaled their interest in actively engaging reform proponents in an effort to reach agreement on effective reform legislation."

(Hagel had suggested an amendment on Monday, urging a cap on soft money instead of an outright ban. But the shenanigans of Democrats Daschle, Torricelli and company had prevented him and two other Republicans from offering their amendments.)

"Today's vote is a huge stride toward passage of a soft money ban," said the eternally optimistic Feingold. "I am always asked: How do you get to 60 votes for campaign-finance reform? And my answer is 'One at a time.' Well today we got three ... And we know there are other senators who are still wrestling with this tough issue."

McCain vowed that the battle would go on. "Never, ever, ever, ever give up," he said when asked if he had a message for reform supporters out in the hinterlands. "This process is ruining this democracy, and we will win." He suggested that whatever bounce his presidential campaign has gotten in the polls is because of his advocacy of reform.

But the opponents had both the money and the power and the reality on their side.

"This was the 20th cloture vote we've had on this issue," McConnell noted from the floor. "I think it's safe to say ... that there is no momentum whatsoever for this kind of measure."

By Jake Tapper

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

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