Will the Dems derail McCain-Feingold?

Campaign reform diary, Week 2: After a successful first week, the bill's supporters brace for opposition from unexpected places.

Published March 26, 2001 10:14PM (EST)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., began the weekend with three somewhat long-shot hopes. He wanted the University of Arizona Wildcats to make it to the Final Four. He was rooting for "Traffic" to win the Oscar for best picture. And he still thought that his campaign finance reform bill could survive another week of debate without being sabotaged.

Oddly, though, it was the last of these three that McCain seemed the most skeptical about. "You got all kinds of things lurking out there," he said in an interview Friday evening. "This is a minefield."

Even though last week's Senate debate went fairly well for the McCain-Feingold forces -- with the defeat of all amendments that could have doomed final passage of the bill, even some supported by President Bush -- McCain is under no delusions that this week will be as easy. A handful of Democratic senators have left McCain with the distinct impression that they are looking for a way to defeat the bill, probably because last year, for the first time, Democrats achieved parity with Republicans in the fundraising of unregulated, unlimited "soft money," which the McCain-Feingold bill would ban.

"We really do have a situation here where most of the people in the Senate would like this issue to go away," McCain said. "And you can certainly understand why most incumbents would want to preserve the current system, since it is designed to protect incumbents."

One incumbent who seemed to be changing his tune late last week was Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., the assistant majority leader, who told reporters that he could "live with" a soft-money ban as long as it was paired with an increase in the cap on "hard-money" donations, contributions made directly to candidates. The hard-money limit has been set at $1,000 per person per election per candidate since the post-Watergate reforms of 1974, with a $25,000 maximum per contributor.

McCain said Nickles had previously "mentioned that the president had said in the course of the campaign that he was for a ban on union and corporate soft money," so Nickles' announcement didn't come as a surprise to him. And while he was pleased -- Nickles "is the No. 2 guy in the leadership for the Republicans in the Senate," McCain stressed -- he also cautioned that no one should mistake Nickles' statement for a pledge to ultimately vote for passage of McCain-Feingold.

That's because a debate over an increase in hard money could prompt Democrats to start peeling off. In moments of off-the-record candor, aides to senior Democrats freely admit that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., does not particularly want McCain-Feingold to pass, despite the fact that Democrats have been supporting the bill for years (back when they knew it would have no chance of passing).

McCain-Feingold strategists don't doubt for one second that Democratic leaders' claim that their party is less married to the cash coming their way from corporate America -- not to mention from labor unions -- has always been a bluff. Some wonder if Nickles' comments -- not to mention odd coos of possible compromise floated from the White House -- are a signal to Democrats, reminding them that it's their turn to defeat the bill.

The coming week's debate is likely to provide Democrats with two such opportunities. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the leading opponent of campaign finance reform -- who, to his credit, is upfront about his opposition, in direct contrast with some of the weasels on the other side of the aisle -- is expected to orchestrate the introduction of an amendment that would require the bill to be a complete legal whole.

The McCain-Feingold brigade opposes this "non-severability" amendment, which would essentially ensure that the bill -- if it makes it out of the Senate, House, House-Senate Conference Committee and White House -- has the additional snake pit of the U.S. Supreme Court to contend with. Some of the more controversial aspects of the bill might be struck down by the SCOTUS, so a "non-severability" amendment would essentially add Justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and others as an insurance policy to possibly kill the bill, a policy that has worked in the not-so-distant past, on issues far weightier.

"Non-severability" is a priority of the Bush White House, but even more significant is that some Democratic senators might support the measure as well. The McCain-Feingold forces have six or seven Republican votes they can count on; seven or so Democrats are wobbly on this issue, according to McCain-Feingold strategists.

For that reason, a pro-McCain-Feingold group called Americans for Reform on Thursday started running ads in key states to put pressure on some of these senators to not even think about "making mischief," as some McCain-Feingold strategists call it.

But wait. Isn't this exactly the type of third-party issue ad -- like the memorable Texans for Clean Air ad against McCain in the presidential primaries -- that McCain-Feingold would crack down on? That was a point House Majority Whip Tom "The Hammer" DeLay, R-Texas, tried to make on Friday, at any rate.

"Senator McCain, you should be ashamed of yourself," said DeLay, one of the GOP's most aggressive fundraisers and campaign finance reform opponents. "After years spent lecturing the public about the evils of soft money, on Thursday you allowed your Senate committee hearing room to be used by a group to launch a series of TV ads that are paid for by the same soft money you claim to despise ... This is the height of hypocrisy."

McCain responded to DeLay's charge by arguing that the Americans for Reform ads would completely pass muster under McCain-Feingold. Soft money -- banned under McCain-Feingold -- is the unlimited campaign cash given to political parties, not to third-party groups such as Americans for Reform. And the third-party activities that McCain-Feingold would ban occur at specific time periods -- 30 days before a primary, 60 days before an election. While one can argue the merits, or the constitutionality, of any of these measures, the Americans for Reform TV ad doesn't violate any of them.

"Tom needs to take a deep breath, get ahold of himself, sit down, read my bill," McCain said in a statement. "Even if this bill passes, I'm sure Tom will find a way to squeeze a few more millions out of the system."

DeLay's protestations notwithstanding, the Americans for Reform ad, in some small way, may be working. Midweek, one of the wobbly Democrats, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., seemed uncommitted on the issue of non-severability when he spoke with McCain. "I said to him, 'I hope you can understand why we're so concerned about this issue, and blah blah blah blah blah,'" McCain reports. "And he said, 'I got your point.'"

When contacted on Friday evening to find out his boss's position on non-severability, Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said he wasn't sure, though he had heard that ads were running in his state "implying that Senator Nelson is bailing on McCain-Feingold, and it's just not true."

"He's voted with McCain on eight of the nine votes so far," protested McLaughlin, the one exception being an amendment offered by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., that would have allowed states to enact public financing if they so desired -- and would have likely killed the entire measure on final passage, since the GOP caucus opposes any public financing at all.

Then on Saturday, McLaughlin contacted Salon via e-mail. "Just wanted to let you know Sen. Bill Nelson's position on the non-severability amendment," McLaughlin wrote. "He's going to be with McCain on this issue -- and [does] not want to put a time-bomb in the campaign finance reform legislation."

For all the Sturm und Drang on non-severability, however, the bigger issue seems to be the one Nickles has cited as a prerequisite for his support of a soft-money ban: an increase in hard-money limits. Indexed to inflation, the 1974 limits permit an individual contribution of roughly $3,300 per candidate per donor -- but the logic of this means nothing to some Democrats, who decry any attempt to raise the hard-money caps. Republicans generally surpass Democrats in hard-money fundraising by a large margin. And, of course, some to the left of the Democratic Party don't think there's any need for more money in politics. "It's an area where I'd strongly prefer we don't increase the limits," says McCain's cosponsor, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. "But there is this sentiment that we ought to do something. The question is, can we keep it under control?"

Asked how high he'd be willing to increase the limit from the current $1,000 maximum, Feingold plays coy.

"I'd be willing to go up to $1,001," he says.

C'mon, senator. That's not much of an increase at all.

"Well, look," Feingold says, "I'm not religiously opposed to some modest increase if it's essential to passing the bill."

How high would you go? I ask.

"I'm not going to negotiate with you!" he says, laughing.

Asked about Feingold's "$1,001" response, McCain says, "Well, you know, that's his shtick. He knows we gotta raise the hard-money limits. Obviously, he doesn't want to. But there are a lot of things in this bill that I don't particularly want. I don't care about this 'millionaire's amendment,' but I had to support it to move the process along."

(The millionaire's amendment, which would raise donation limits for candidates who are facing self-financed millionaire opponents, was offered by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Tuesday, and passed overwhelmingly, 70-30, despite opposition from Daschle.)

"I'm sure Russ will be willing to negotiate when it's time to negotiate," McCain says.

Yes, but will other Democrats? On Friday, Daschle said that raising the hard-money limits would make him "fear that we are putting more and more power, financially, into the hands of those few givers at the expense of everybody else. We may be going from campaign finance reform to campaign finance replacement."

Asked about Nickles' suggestion that the hard-money limit be increased to $3,000 -- which is less than the original worth of the $1,000 limit, indexed to inflation -- Daschle said on Friday, "I'd oppose that. I couldn't support $3,000 ... I'd vote against it ... Why we would lock into law an opportunity that gives Republicans three times, perhaps, the level of support that Democrats are going to get is not something I'm prepared to accept. There are a lot more rich Republicans."

One Democratic leadership source says that, yes, there are plenty of Democrats who philosophically oppose raising the hard-money limits, but that there are even more Democrats who just don't want McCain-Feingold to pass, since the party brought in so much soft money last year -- $242 million to the GOP's $243 mil.

McConnell, long dubbed the Darth Vader of campaign finance reform, was awfully serene last week, McCain-Feingold strategists observe with more than a touch of wariness in their throats. Nevertheless, McCain keeps praising McConnell -- at least he tells you what he really thinks, McCain says. Not so with others, like the Daschles of the world. No wonder McConnell seems so serene; he's going to have a relatively easy week. Indeed, it looks like Tom Daschle's going to be doing his work for him.

By Jake Tapper

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

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