Campaign reform diary

After senators come together to make a little Boy Scout's dreams come true, a warm glow fills the chambers. But darkness lurks.

Published March 24, 2001 12:59AM (EST)

There was a strange note of harmony in the air Thursday that just might have sounded the night before, after Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., began worrying about making the 6 p.m. Amtrak Metroliner. His 10-year-old son, Ben, was to officially cross over from the post-Cub Scout stage of Webelos to Boy Scout at a ceremony at the Aldersgate Methodist Church in Wilmington, Del. But at the rate Senate debate was going -- over the amendment of the moment, a "paycheck protection" measure offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah -- there was no way Carper would catch the train.

So Carper went to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican heading up floor debate. He went to the Democrats' two floor guys, Sens. Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Harry Reid of Nevada. Was there any way they could agree to shave seven or so minutes off the time for floor debate, and proceed to the vote, so he could make his train?

On this, if little else involving this hot-button issue, there was unanimous bipartisan agreement.

Sure, they all said. And seven minutes were shaved off debate so Carper could vote and see Ben become a Boy Scout.

On Carper's way out, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. -- the chief Democratic sponsor of the campaign finance reform bill -- grabbed Carper by the shoulder.

Carper paused. Looked behind him.

"Tell your son we're proud of him," Feingold said.

Thursday seemed to pick up where this Coke commercial of an ending left off. After Hatch got another try at his paycheck protection amendment that was tabled Wednesday night, it was tabled again. And then there was harmony in the air.

Two amendments to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill were so uncontroversial they passed by voice vote -- meaning no one had to go on the record one way or another, there was such universal agreement in favor of the measures.

One of these, from Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., would require the Federal Election Commission to post candidates' election reports on the Internet within 24 hours of receiving them, if the reports were filed electronically, or within 48 hours, if they were filed on paper. The FEC currently posts these reports, a Cochran spokeswoman explained, but the organization has no deadline.

The other voice-vote amendment, offered by Sens. Ron Wyden , D-Ore., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, was a rather cool "why don't you say that to my face" proposal that would crack down on candidates who are able to take advantage of the cheapest rate for campaign ads on TV and radio to sling mud fairly anonymously. "In order to qualify for the advertising discounts that federal law requires that candidates for federal office receive," Wyden said, "those candidates would have to personally stand by any mention of an opponent in a radio or television advertisement."

For negative TV ads, a photograph of the candidate who paid for the ad would have to be incorporated into it, as well as a legible written statement along the lines of "Sen. Wyden approved of this ad." For radio, the candidate's own voice would have to introduce himself or herself and make a similar statement.

In today's world of campaign ads, Wyden explained, "candidates can hide behind grainy photographs of their opponent, pictures that make that opponent look pretty much like a criminal, and often there's this bloodcurdling music that portrays the whole thing in such an ominous kind of way that children just sort of run for another room."

Wyden knows of what he speaks, both as victim and as perpetrator. In the January 1996 special election to replace retiring GOP Sen. Bob "Hot Lips" Packwood, Wyden and Gordon Smith engaged in one of the ugliest, most negative campaigns Oregon had ever seen. One Portland radio host told listeners to instead write in "Keiko," the name of the killer whale from the film "Free Willy," who had just splashed into the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Close to Special Election Day 1996, however, Wyden pulled his negative TV ads from the airwaves and beat Smith narrowly. (Smith was elected to the Senate later that year after then Sen. Mark Hatfield announced his retirement as well.)

Both Wyden and Smith -- and everyone else in the Senate -- supported the "Stand by Your Ad" amendment Thursday.

The final amendment voted on came from Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., who objected to the McCain-Feingold's language that supposedly codified the U.S. Supreme Court's 1998 decision in Communications Workers of America vs. Beck. The Beck decision ruled that nonunion members cannot be required to have their union dues pay for union activities to which they object other than those related to collective bargaining.

Nickles and other conservatives thought that the McCain-Feingold bill's codification of Beck fell short, and actually weakened the Supreme Court ruling. Representatives from labor unions said fine, strike it from the bill altogether, and the Senate did so, 99-0.

"It's not needed in the bill," one McCain-Feingold lieutenant said. "It's already a Supreme Court ruling; Bush can enforce it any time he wants."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., then stepped up to offer an amendment to address one of the more constitutionally questionable provisions in McCain-Feingold: the provision on independent ads offered by Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Jim Jeffords of Vermont. The bill requires disclosure and a number of other tough measures when it comes to the involvement of third-party groups in elections, the most controversial of the Snowe-Jeffords provisions being one that would prohibit corporations and unions from any "electioneering communications" -- meaning TV or radio ads -- within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Specter explained that he had written language that he thought had a better chance of passing constitutional muster. Snowe took to the floor with some charts and disagreed. Specter argued that maybe his language could be added to the bill just in case Snowe-Jeffords were to be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And here the issue of "non-severability" reared its pretty, evil little head. President Bush has made non-severability one of his "campaign finance reform principles," meaning that if McCain-Feingold were to pass, and any part of it were to be declared unconstitutional, the whole shebang should be tossed.

Specter was told that he should hold off on his latter suggestion until the issue of non-severability was raised, when it would become relevant. Because it is quite possible that non-severability will be the amendment that kills McCain-Feingold, either as a poison pill in the Senate or as a cancer in the U.S. Supreme Court. McCain-Feingold crusaders say that this is the costume anti-reformers are dressed in this year.

"The fact that we've had a couple of amendments -- and there are more to come -- where constitutional issues have been presented makes it all the more important that a non-severability clause is defeated," says Common Cause spokesman Jeff Cronin. "Anyone who votes for the non-severability language is playing right into Mitch McConnell's hands."

And the ones McCain-Feingold supporters see as potentially "making mischief" on this issue -- to the point that it could topple the bill -- are Democrats.

Eight, to be precise: Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, recently appointed to head up the Senate Democrats' fundraising efforts at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Torricelli of New Jersey, big corporate money men both, slippery as eels and half as charming. And five others whom the McCain-Feingold crew is said to be eyeing warily out of concern that, since Democrats achieved soft-money parity with Republicans last year, they may not want to give it up: Sens. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida and Mr. Populist himself, Tom Harkin of Iowa, who faces a potentially tough reelection campaign next year against moderate GOP Rep. Greg Ganske.

Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota alluded to this Wednesday morning in comments to reporters.

"A lot of our colleagues have ... said that they believe that the reason they're voting for McCain-Feingold is Snowe-Jeffords," Daschle said. "I mean, that's their motivation. They truly believe that that is as important as abolishing soft money. So they're concerned about the severability question and believe that it really undermines our ability to be supportive of the McCain-Feingold legislation, if that major piece were taken out. And so I understand their motivation."

I'll just bet.

By Jake Tapper

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

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