It's in the Democrats' hands

Campaign reform diary: As the compromises on McCain-Feingold get pounded out, skeptics wonder if Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle is really willing to bend.

Published March 29, 2001 1:55AM (EST)

If this week has primarily been about how Democrats have stood in the way of campaign finance reform, Wednesday the focus tightens on Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Negotiations are going on behind the scenes to work out a compromise over what "hard-money" increases the Senate is willing to pass as an amendment to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill. The question is whether Daschle will compromise or resist, thus killing the bill -- a scenario that some Senate Democratic staffers acknowledge on background is of course just fine with him and the rest of the Democratic leadership.

The problem is that Republicans don't want to take the blame for the demise of the reform bill. So, some Senate observers say, GOP senators and President Bush are calling the Democrats' bluff. You want a soft-money ban? Fine, they seem to be saying, you got one.

Tuesday afternoon, according to the Associated Press, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., confirmed for reporters that Bush had told him the day before that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill were it to hit his desk -- even one that contained a ban on soft-money contributions from individuals, which Bush has opposed. Then an anonymous Bush advisor told the AP that Bush "does believe that individuals should be able to give [soft-money] donations, but he wants to balance that philosophy with his desire to sign campaign finance reform legislation."

In other words: Your turn, Tom Daschle.

Assuming this theory to be correct, the next question for Daschle is how to do it. Clearly it can't be done in a straight up-or-down vote; it would have to be done in a manner confusing to the public, buried in Senate arcana. There have been along the way many such potential pitfalls in the making of this bill, and any number of them could have been the problem. "Originally it was supposed to be 'paycheck protection,'" said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., standing with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the Senate Press Gallery on Tuesday afternoon, discussing the many ways his and McCain's bill was to be sneakily destroyed. Paycheck protection was one of the "Reform Principles" issued by President Bush before McCain-Feingold was introduced, and would require authorization from union members before dues could be spent on any lobbying activity.

But numerous paycheck protection amendments, opposed by labor unions and a majority of Senate Democrats, came and went last week, failing every time.

"Then it was 'Hagel,'" Feingold said, referring to the rival campaign finance reform bill offered by McCain's closest Senate buddy and fellow Vietnam veteran, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

But on Tuesday, Hagel's bill fizzled like an Alka-Seltzer. It was broken up into three parts, including its two most controversial sections: allowing contribution of $60,000 in soft money to national parties per donor per election, and tripling hard money, currently capped at $1,000 per donor per candidate per election. Both failed.

But McCain noted that the vote on tripling hard-dollar donations was close, 52-47. That, he said, "shows we have a lot of negotiating to do." (The vote on allowing soft money, capped at $60,000 per donor, failed 60-40.)

And that's where the problem lies. There's an understanding among the bipartisan McCain-Feingold coalition that any soft-money ban that can pass also has to increase those hard-money limits. But Democrats don't like this, some for principled reasons (not wanting any more money in politics), others just because Republicans are better hard-money fundraisers.

So the question is: How much will these limits be raised? The first vote on the issue is scheduled to hit the Senate on Wednesday.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., a member of the McCain-Feingold crew, has for some time been telling McCain that he wants to triple the limits. McCain doesn't disagree with this on philosophical grounds -- it's still less than an increase indexed to inflation would be -- but Feingold opposes that much of an increase, and too many Democrats would bolt from final passage of the bill if such an increase became part of it.

Still, Thompson and McCain are close friends. McCain has nothing but respect for the gruff former actor ("The Hunt for Red October," "Die Hard 2") and the upfront way he has dealt with him. Thompson, meanwhile, was one of the few senators to endorse McCain's 2000 presidential bid.

After the "tripling" measure of Hagel's amendment failed on Tuesday, Thompson revised his own amendment, trying to find a compromise. He proposed that instead of a tripling of current limits, the following increases in hard-money limits be adopted: for individuals, from $1,000 to $2,500; for PACS, $5,000 to $7,500; for state and local parties, $5,000 to $10,000; for national parties, $20,000 to $40,000. Thompson's amendment calls for the aggregate limit, per donor, to be increased from $25,000 to $50,000.

In addition, the caps would be gradually increased over time, indexed to inflation.

Most of the Republicans in the McCain-Feingold coalition see this as reasonable. Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also a member of the coalition, has been working with Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., on a compromise that Democrats could support. Their compromise ranges from smaller increases than Thompson's ($2,000 for individuals instead of $2,500) to much smaller increases than Thompson's (raising the total contribution limit from $25,000 to $30,000 instead of $50,000). The Feinstein-Cochran amendment, though, would also index the caps to the rate of inflation.

You might think that it wouldn't be that tough to split the difference between Thompson's amendment and the Feinstein-Cochran move. And that's what McCain wants to do. He's hoping that on Wednesday, everyone will go into a room, hash it all out and find an increase in hard-money limits that a substantial majority of the Senate could live with.

But such a move can only happen if Daschle will allow it to. Daschle has said that he would not only vote against raising the caps of individual donations to $3,000 (as proposed in Hagel's bill) but also against Thompson's proposed increase to $2,500 -- which, McCain-Feingold advocates point out, is still worth significantly less than the $1,000 cap when it was set, in 1974.

If Daschle can do this in a way that makes him look like he fought for tougher campaign finance reform measures than either McCain or Feingold, then so much the better. Is this what's about to go down? A number of McCain-Feingold supporters sure suspect so.

Seemingly reasonable, soft-spoken and popular with the Hill's beat reporters, Daschle has avoided much criticism for wanting to see McCain-Feingold go away -- even though it was Daschle, Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who led the way for the defeat of a version of McCain-Feingold in 1999. (Tuesday in the Senate, one scribe griped to me that Daschle's office had been less than upfront with him on McCain's "deal" with the Democratic caucus on the Feinstein-Cochran amendment, and said he was surprised at the level to which he "got played" by the Daschle team.)

Daschle escaped all blame for what went down Monday night as well, when an amendment to McCain-Feingold from Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., expanded a ban on TV ads close to election time to include certain third-party groups whose activities have already been protected under a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Supporters of the constitutionally dubious amendment included 27 Democrats and 24 Republicans.

Though Daschle did not vote for that amendment, he was on the floor when Democrats supported it, and one Senate staffer says Daschle was encouraging Democrats to vote for the Wellstone measure. A pending vote on "non-severability" -- which would make the bill an indivisible whole, ensuring that if the U.S. Supreme Court throws out a part of it, the whole thing will be tossed -- makes the Wellstone amendment, should the whole bill advance, the addition that would sink it all in the end.

"Anyone who votes for non-severability is saying, 'I'm gonna set a trap for this bill,'" Feingold told reporters.

I guess we'll see how the Democrats vote on that, too. The Democratic leadership has yet to "whip" the issue of non-severability, to see how the 50 senators will vote. And in Tuesday's Democratic caucus meeting, sources say, Daschle didn't exactly push the issue.

Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, stopped by the Senate Press Gallery. Craig's an opponent of McCain-Feingold, and something of a straight shooter. I asked him if Republicans were upset that they continue to take the heat for the defeat of campaign finance reform when the current debate makes it pretty clear that the Democrats are just as much to blame.

"I think after this, the heat's going to be redistributed," Craig said.

By Jake Tapper

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

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