Campaign reform diary

Even a mild-mannered amendment can be a "poison pill" in disguise.

Published March 22, 2001 1:44AM (EST)

The hazy bog of agendas just keeps getting murkier. The biggest news of this, Day 2 of the Senate's debate over campaign finance reform was probably that the McCain-Feingold Crusaders, as they think of themselves, won three votes. Three amendments came up -- one passed, two failed -- and the results were just as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wanted them. But, as always, even with a program it was tough to tell just who was on whose team.

Opponents of McCain-Feingold played up the afternoon press conference by the man offering the rival bill, McCain's buddy and fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Hagel introduced a few more Republican cosponsors of his bill, which caps the unregulated unlimited contributions known as soft money at $60,000 per person per year per election per party -- as opposed to the McCain-Feingold bill, which bans soft money outright.

Hagel refers to his bill as the Hagel-Landrieu bill, in deference to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., one of three Democrats who are on board with his bill. Somewhat awkwardly, Landrieu is also a cosponsor of McCain-Feingold, which she says is her first choice. Hagel's bill, however, is the tacit first choice of President George W. Bush -- even though, scorekeepers at home will proudly recall, Bush proposed banning union and corporate soft money altogether during his presidential primaries.

"I wanted to also acknowledge the fact that we have four new cosponsors who have joined us," Hagel said at today's press conference, introducing Republican Sens. Wayne Allard of Colorado, Sam Brownback of Kansas, George Voinovich of Ohio and Larry Craig of Idaho.

"We will have more," Hagel vowed.

McCain pooh-poohed the Hagel bill's chances. In the Senate press gallery to rap with the Washington Post's legendary Mary McGrory, McCain told a cluster of reporters that "there's not a doubt in my mind" Hagel's bill won't pass.

What did pass Tuesday was the "millionaire's amendment" to McCain-Feingold, so pivotal to Day 1, and worked out by the Three Ds -- Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. The amendment passed overwhelmingly at around noon, by a 70-30 vote. The amendment lifts caps on donations from individuals and political parties for a candidate facing a millionaire opponent using private funds to bankroll a campaign.

It was vigorously opposed by Democratic chieftains like Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Minority Whip Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada -- who called the amendment a "shell game." Still, 23 Democrats broke ranks and joined with 47 Republicans to attach the provision to the McCain-Feingold bill.

McCain downplayed the conflict.

"Oh c'mon, c'mon," McCain said. "This is not a major issue. We all know what the major issues are: They're soft money and severability."

"Severability" refers to what the McCain-Feingold forces consider the lurking panther of an amendment. Bush and GOP senators have said that any campaign finance bill that passes should remain one whole, and if any part of the bill is found unconstitutional, the whole thing should be chucked into the garbage.

The McCain-Feingold team is wary of this, of course, as it will make scrapping any reform that much more possible. Only 10 bills in 12 years had had "non-severability" clauses, McCain said, so he didn't understand the big push for it this time except as a way to flush the package.

But the "millionaire's amendment" was a "major issue" for Domenici, unquestionably, and he and several members of the GOP caucus were upset that the original amendment was scrapped Monday instead of being allowed to be modified.

Among those upset were two prominent members of the McCain-Feingold team -- GOP Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Susan Collins of Maine. Thompson not only broke ranks from the McCain-Feingold team Monday night, wanting a vote on Domenici's amendment, but he also voted against the compromise Tuesday.

The compromise amendment sought to level the playing field by setting three "thresholds" for opponents of self-financed millionaire candidates, thresholds that depend upon the population of the state -- and therefore, presumably, the costs of TV time. (A dollar in Philadelphia, Miss., buys a bit more on the local ABC affiliate than the same in Philadelphia, Pa.) At threshold one, the donation limit for individuals -- currently set at $1,000 -- is raised three times; at threshold two, it's raised six times, and at the third threshold, it's raised six times and the amount that political parties can contribute increases proportionately to 110 percent of what the millionaire is spending.

Public interest groups like Common Cause waxed snarky about the fact that the first day and a half of debate over campaign finance reform amendments were focused on the issue.

"It is disappointing but not entirely surprising to see that the Senate's first move out of the gate on the campaign finance debate is to put forward an amendment dealing with their own self-interests rather than the public interest," said Common Cause president Scott Harshbarger. "While this amendment being considered by the Senate today does not go to the core of the bill's soft money ban or the provisions dealing with sham 'issue ads,' it reveals the preoccupation that incumbents have with preserving their advantage over challengers."

In the press gallery, McCain explained the fixation. "The millionaires issue is a very emotional one for senators," he said. "Everyone is scared to death of waking up in the morning and reading in the newspaper that some Fortune 500 CEO or some heir or heiress is gonna run against them and spend $15 million of their own money."

But finally the subject on the floor of the Senate was changed, and the millionaires in the Senate -- including McCain and Hagel -- stopped voting on such matters.

At around 4 p.m., an amendment offered by Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, that would require some political action committees to pay their operating expenses only with "hard," or limited and regulated dollars, failed, 37-63, after Democrats complained the amendment targeted labor PACs more so than corporate PACs. The McCain-Feingold forces held firm against it.

Then, at around 6 p.m., the Senate resoundingly voted to table an amendment offered by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., by a vote of 74-25.

Smith's amendment sounded great, described as an effort to prevent lobbyists from donating money to members of Congress while Congress is in session -- a campaign finance reform provision that Bush himself had proposed during his primaries-era metamorphosis from a "compassionate conservative" to a "reformer with results."

But Smith's version, critics said, had been written so broadly that it would have denied any member of management of a company that employed a D.C. lobbyist the ability to donate personal funds to a candidate. Debate over Smith's amendment petered out long before the three hours given each amendment had wound down.

"Had they written it the right way, it would have passed 100-to-zero," one McCain-Feingold lieutenant said. "But it was potentially unconstitutional as it was written." So had it passed, it might have been the poison pill that eventually would have sunk the bill. "Which might have been the point," the source said.

Members of the McCain-Feingold team eye Smith warily, as someone who postures tough on reform -- he is, after all, from left-leaning Oregon -- but may be up to no good. He is said to be the one working on the "non-severability" amendment.

Toward the end of the day, asked when more trick amendments might be offered -- ones that sound good but are actually inserted to prevent final passage of the bill -- Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., McCain-Feingold's chief opponent, took issue with the term used to describe them.

"A poison pill is anything the New York Times and the Washington Post and Common Cause are against," McConnell joked.

By Jake Tapper

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

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Campaign Finance John Mccain R-ariz.