Die hard, too?

McCain-Feingold gets a big hand from former actor Sen. Fred Thompson. But it ain't over 'til they roll the credits.

Published March 29, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

As air traffic control captain Trudeau in the 1990 Bruce Willis vehicle "Die Hard 2," actor turned senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., instructs landing aircraft to remain in a holding pattern until hijackers are no longer controlling Dulles Airport.

"Stack 'em, rack 'em and pack 'em," Thompson instructs his team.

Then, turning to the cops, Thompson says: "We just bought ourselves, maybe, two hours. After that, those planes that are on fuel aren't gonna be circling. They're gonna be dropping on the White House lawn."

Thompson carried out a similar duty Wednesday in the negotiations on an increase in hard-money limits in the campaign finance reform bill proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. A disaster was looming, and Thompson's cool head and willingness to compromise helped avert a major problem for the reform brigade, so that soon the bill may in fact drop "on the White House lawn."

"If McCain-Feingold passes, it will not have happened if it weren't for Fred Thompson," said McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter, on Wednesday evening.

Indeed, Wednesday morning, some members of the McCain-Feingold coalition were convinced that this issue might bring the whole bill down.

Democrats wanted the hard-dollar increase to be as small as possible, if made at all; Republicans wanted the donation limits lifted to at least what the post-Watergate reforms would be worth indexed to inflation. Thompson had the votes to pass his amendment, which would have increased limits on hard-money contributions to a candidate from $1,000 to $2,500 per individual, $5,000 to $7,500 per PAC, $5,000 to $10,000 per state/local party and $20,000 to $40,000 per national party, with an aggregate limit per donor set at $50,000 per calendar year.

But even though he had the votes for his amendment to pass -- with almost all of the GOP caucus, plus some Democrats, supporting it -- Thompson knew that McCain-Feingold couldn't pass were his amendment added to the bill as is. As one McCain-Feingold strategist put it, with those hard-money increases "the Democrats would walk. And there's no point in doing this if the Democrats walk."

So, as in "Die Hard 2," Thompson and the McCain-Feingold crew took two hours and kept the Senate in a holding pattern.

Thompson and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has a more modest hard-money increase proposal, went behind closed doors with McCain and Feingold and others on the campaign finance reform team -- including Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. -- and tried to work out a compromise.

In the LBJ Room on the second floor of the Capitol, they all hashed it out, along with Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Don Nickles, R-Okla., Harry Reid, D-Nev., Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and staffers representing Majority Leader Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, showed up a bit late.

McCain started the meeting, saying he hoped they could come up with an agreement. Feingold spoke, then Feinstein. The opinions at the table varied wildly -- Reid said he didn't want any hard-money increase, while Nickles made it clear that he thought the hard-money limits should be raised significantly, at least to the level they would now be had they been indexed to inflation when they were first passed post-Watergate.

"After the initial posturing, there was a free debate," says a McCain-Feingold senior staffer, "and the eating of sandwiches."

Eventually the group started to work on splitting the difference. "Let's be honest and divide it between the Thompson and Feinstein positions," Nickles said.

The compromise went along with Feinstein on some issues, like raising the individual contribution limit from $1,000 to $2,000 and keeping the PAC contribution limit at $5,000.

But Thompson, Nickles and Hagel made it clear that they needed the Democrats to give on some issues, too. The Republicans pushed hard for increasing the aggregate maximum an individual can contribute in a given year. A proposal was made. The Democrats at the table separated and soon returned with a counteroffer, which the Republicans still weren't happy with.

The Democrats left, except for Feinstein, who stayed on to haggle with Thompson. They went back and forth on the cluster of outstanding issues. After reaching a deal she could live with, Feinstein left to get the OK from the Democratic leadership. She took a while getting back, but she came back with the leadership's approval.

"We got a deal," Thompson said.

Thompson's a charmer, but he's not known as being the hardest worker in the Senate -- except when he wants to be. Here he clearly wanted to be.

"We went at it for two hours," Thompson said.

According to the McCain-Feingold senior staffer, what was so remarkable about the meeting was not only the air of compromise but the fact that the senators themselves, rather than their staffs, were doing so much of the work and were so conversant with the issues.

"For 99 percent of the meetings we have to get issues out of a committee; most of the time you're lucky if you get two or three senators showing up at the meeting," the staffer said. "And even then, staffers are feeding them notes, conducting the meetings sometimes. This time, there were 11 senators at a table, arguing, debating, compromising. And most of what the staff was doing was bringing them sandwiches."

In the end, Feinstein and the Republicans each got some of what they wanted. The aggregate limit an individual can give was raised from $25,000 to $37,500 per calendar year -- as opposed to Feinstein's proposal of $30K. The compromise also doubled the amount a national party could give to a candidate, from $17,500 to $35,000.

The matter went to the Senate floor, where it passed 84-16. The only naysayers were a hodgepodge of Democrats -- including some philosophically opposed to any hard-money increases at all, like Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. There were a host of others -- like Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. -- hypocrites who privately oppose a soft-money ban, since they feel it will disproportionately hurt Democrats, but publicly tell their constituents that they support it.

There were some rumblings from Daschle's office that two matters were indexed to inflation without consultation with the minority leader. Thompson and Feinstein came to the Senate Radio and TV Gallery before the vote was over, where Feinstein acknowledged that things had been moving so quickly she hadn't had time to run the changes by Daschle, though, she said, she had checked with the assistant minority leader, Sen. Reid, who said, "Go do it."

More important, Feinstein said, "I think McCain-Feingold is on its way to passage."

Thompson said he was "just delighted ... I hope some of my Republican colleagues will smell the coffee, and see that we've acceded to some of their legitimate arguments about the bill."

Even in his triumphant moment, however, Thompson cautioned that "there are still hurdles. We're in about the eighth inning now ... I'm not underestimating what might be done."

Thompson was alluding to an anticipated amendment on "non-severability," which would make the bill one whole so that if any part of it were to be thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, the entire bill would be tossed.

With additions of constitutionally questionable amendments by Wellstone Monday, and Schumer Wednesday, McCain-Feingold strategists consider a "yea" vote on "non-severability" to be "setting a trap" for the bill, as Feingold put it Tuesday. This is the fort where sneaky Democrats who want to kill the bill -- but don't want to take the blame for killing it -- are now hiding.

A lobbyist for Common Cause reports that he anticipates possible "yea" votes on non-severability from Democratic Sens. Wellstone, Murray, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, John Breaux of Louisiana and Robert "The Torch" Torricelli of New Jersey.

On Wednesday evening, McCain's "Straight Talk America" PAC sent out an e-mail to its list of roughly 200,000 McCainiacs, urging defeat of the non-severability amendment, which, the e-mail said, "is aimed squarely at defeating the soft money ban. The strategy of CFR opponents is to pass amendments of questionable constitutionality and simultaneously vote for the non-severability amendment that would cancel out any attempts at true reform. A vote for the non-severability amendment is a vote to kill campaign finance reform, plain and simple."

McCain's PAC added a few names to the list of suspected wobbly Democrats, urging voters to call several of the names above as well as a few others: Democratic Sens. Max Baucus of Montana, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Joe Biden of Delaware, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Interestingly, neither Breaux nor Murray made the McCain list, since both are perceived to be completely off the program.

"For those people who want McCain-Feingold, there is only one vote," Feinstein said at Wednesday's press conference, cautioning her colleagues.

Though Democratic leader Daschle has preached support for campaign finance reform and a soft-money ban in the past, he has not been particularly active in rounding up votes on this debate, when it counts. So after his amendment sailed through, I asked Thompson if he thinks Daschle really wants this bill to pass.

"I don't want to second-guess him," Thompson drawled. "I don't want to do anything at this stage of this game to unduly irritate my colleagues, and I hope they treat me the same way."

"He has a legitimate interest to look out for his party, just as Sen. Lott does," Thompson said of the Democratic leader. "And I appreciate that. And it's a complex deal trying to figure out whether or not you're giving away the store ... So they've got to be a little uptight about all this ... I think he's going to be there in the end."

We'll see. After all, Thompson -- while playing Adm. Josh Painter in the 1990 Alec Baldwin vehicle "The Hunt for Red October" -- knew that the unexpected, and uncontrollable, can end it all. "This business will get out of control," Thompson said in that film. "It will get out of control and we'll be lucky to live through it." So lucky, too, will be the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill of 2001.

By Jake Tapper

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

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