Campaign reform diary

Day 3: A moist moment between Kennedy and Hatch and a no-bad-news day for McCain-Feingold, but there's an awfully eerie calm.

Published March 23, 2001 1:03AM (EST)

Day 3 came down to a war movie clichi: It's quiet out there. Almost too quiet.

Three more amendments, three more votes coming down the way the team assembled by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., wanted them to, including the defeat of what had been considered a "poison pill" amendment of the past, one insisting on "paycheck protection" for union workers.

The McCain-Feingold bill grew a few pages today with the addition of an amendment from Sen. Bob "the Torch" Torricelli, D-N.J., requiring TV stations to charge federal candidates the lowest listed rates for TV ad time. TV stations are already required to do this, but they frequently bump the political ads to less attractive time-slots in favor of bigger spenders -- but not if this amendment becomes law.

It overwhelmingly passed shortly before noon, 70-30. This even though the National Association of Broadcasters, which opposed the amendment (warning in a letter sent to senators that "further discounted airtime" is on the "slippery slope toward mandatory free time"), has traditionally held much sway on how members of Congress vote.

But the day was extremely low key. The Senate reception room just outside the Senate floor -- where lobbyists usually hang and make their pitches -- was an unusually quiet and empty room Wednesday. Last week at this time, representatives of various interests currying favor for the Bankruptcy Bill -- credit card companies and banks -- were lined up ass to elbow in the mahogany room. But now, mid-afternoon, beneath the watchful eyes of portraits of past Senate giants -- LaFollette, Webster, Taft, Clay, Calhoun -- sat only two men: Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and a senior staffer briefing him on the "paycheck protection" amendment offered by his friend and colleague, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Even a Capitol Hill police officer remarked on how empty the place was. "It's strange," he said. And that probably made business seem a little easier than usual.

Torricelli seemed pleased. "The high cost of television ads is one of the premier reasons that political candidates are forced to spend so much time in search of donations," Torricelli -- no slouch on seeking donations himself -- explained. Torricelli knows of what he speaks more so than most, since he has to purchase TV time in two pricey towns, Philadelphia and New York, his own state of New Jersey lacking a major media market of its own.

Oklahoma GOP Sen. Don Nickles, one of the few senators to vote against the amendment and even fewer to speak against it on the Senate floor, called the move "a $1 million gift to senators." But 28 Republicans joined with two Democrat senators from media powerhouse states, Max Baucus of Montana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, in opposing the Torricelli amendment.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., then offered an amendment allowing public financing for congressional candidates in states that want to do so. "Let the states be the laboratory of reform," Wellstone said, paraphrasing former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. "This is a reform issue and a states' rights issue."

But the principle of states' rights -- like decisions made by the Florida Supreme Court -- tends to dissolve when conservative Republicans disagree with the right in question.

"This is not an idea widely applauded by the American people," countered Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "In fact, they hate it."

Perhaps more importantly, the GOP caucus is unified against any notion of public financing. So for the McCain-Feingold coalition, so reliant on a bipartisan appeal, Wellstone's good intention was a Democratic poison pill. It failed 36-64, with 14 Democrats voting with the entire Republican caucus against it.

Finally, Hatch offered the paycheck protection amendment, which would require that every dues-paying union member be notified and given a chance to approve any dues meant to be spent on a political activity. Unlike "paycheck protection" bills of the past, Hatch's did include a similar measure to require that stockholders receive the same notification-and-vote option when a company opts to make a political maneuver or donation.

But the Hatch amendment was broadly written -- only five pages -- despite all the various complex issues at stake. As in, say, the definition of who a stockholder is. (Would a day trader count?) Or what the definition of political activity might be. (The amendment said that disclosure of how much a corporation or union spent on an activity was necessary, including "Internal and external communications relating to specific candidates, political causes, and committees of political parties." Does this mean that if AFL-CIO president John Sweeney internally communicates in an e-mail that he thinks Hatch's collars are too starchy it needs to be analyzed and disclosed how much said e-mail cost?)

"I don't get it," one McCain-Feingold lieutenant said of the amendments being offered by McConnell and his line of campaign finance reform opponents. "So many of their amendments are so poorly written."

Indeed, during debate, Kennedy eagerly ripped into the vagueness. "It is poorly drafted, it is poorly constructed, and it doesn't do the job which the proponents want to do," Kennedy said. He then attacked Hatch's bill for being tougher on labor unions than corporations, since under his interpretation, Hatch's bill excluded 99.7 percent of all corporations. There's "such a disparity, when you're trying to represent to the Senate that this is even-handed," Kennedy said.

Hatch defended his amendment as an attempt to address the political activities of both unions and corporations. The McCain-Feingold bill is unbalanced, but toward the unions, Hatch said, since 40 percent of union members are Republicans. His bill would have worked on amending this problem.

"[Kennedy] will spend -- and many on the other side of the aisle will spend -- every ounce of their beings to make sure that union members have no say with regard to how their moneys are spent in political activities," Hatch said. "Although 40 percent of all union members are Republican, virtually 100 percent of all union political money is used to elect Democrats."

It was a moment of tension between the two Senate giants, who are close friends. But then a faint chorus of "Can you feel the love tonight?" came up in the background, and Hatch suddenly became downright loving toward his ideological opposite. "I admire him, the way he supports his special interests," Hatch said. "I don't know of anybody that does it better. We don't have anybody on our side that can do that as well."

With that, Kennedy -- who had approached Hatch -- stepped up and gave his Republican friend an emotional embrace.

"That brought tears to my eyes," Hatch said after the hug ended. "Honest to goodness."

Hatch's attempt at balance seemed to have succeeded in one way, if in no other: He pissed off advocates of both unions and corporations, as even conservatives took issue with the corporate crackdown in his bill. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., took what some thought might have been the unprecedented step of ceding some of his debate time to Nickles, who vigorously opposed Hatch's amendment.

And in the end, Republicans like Nickles, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Ted Stevens of Alaska, joined with the entire Democratic caucus and the McCain-Feingold brigades to table Hatch's amendment, 69-31.

"Maybe they're trying to lull McCain into a false sense of security," a reporter later wondered, in the press balcony, looking down at the proceedings and the bad combovers.

By Jake Tapper

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

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