WASHINGTON — Another of the Clinton Administration's legislative priorities fell victim to partisan gridlock Friday as Democrats bitterly gave up trying to pass campaign finance reform after failing to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Both sides agreed that the decade-long effort to reform the way congressional campaigns are financed was doomed for the year when a procedural motion to end the filibuster fell eight votes short of the required three-fifths majority. The vote was 52 to 46, with only two Republicans voting to end the filibuster and six Democrats voting for it. The bill would have imposed limits on campaign spending and would have reduced the amount of money that political action committees could contribute to candidates.
Although the bill was highly controversial--and enjoyed far less support among rank-and-file Democrats than their leaders generally acknowledged--the failure to pass what had been the cornerstone of Clinton's agenda for legislative reform was seen by many analysts as another setback for the party's hopes of retaining control of Congress after the Nov. 8 elections.
"It's bound to feed what is a very powerful anti-Congress mood out there and that mood, while it is directed at incumbents in general, is hurting Democrats more than Republicans because they are the party controlling Congress and the White House," said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
That concern was evident as Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), making no effort to conceal his anger, strode to the Senate podium after the vote to lash out at "obstructionism" and Republicans he said were trying to "tear down the institution (of Congress) so they can inherit the rubble."
"I thought we had strained the bounds of all possible hypocrisy in the past, but I think we have broken through them in this debate," declared the bill's embittered chief sponsor, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.).
Republicans just as angrily denied that their motives for killing what they described as a deeply flawed and possibly unconstitutional bill were partisan or political. Noting that Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate had held up the bill for months because of intraparty disagreements that were resolved only on the eve of the vote, Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said that he would make no apologies for blocking legislation that the Republicans were given no opportunity to influence. "From Day 1, Republicans have been shut out of the process. . . . It's been take it or leave it--the Democratic plan or no plan at all," Dole said.
"I'm not happy about not being able to pass a good, bipartisan reform bill. But if we can't do something good, then at least we can be satisfied that we didn't do something bad," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led opposition to the bill.
In the ritual blame game that began after Mitchell announced that he was pulling the bill from the floor, public interest groups supporting the reforms were more bipartisan in their approach--blaming Clinton for not pushing the bill strongly enough, House Democrats for stalling until they knew it would be vulnerable to an end-of-session Senate filibuster and Republicans for finally pulling the trigger on legislation that the Democrats, by design or ineptness, had allowed to become "a sitting duck," according to Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer.
Wertheimer praised Mitchell and Boren but charged that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) had played "a major role in killing" the reforms through their "inexcusable delay" in ironing out their differences with Mitchell so that the two versions of the bill passed last year by the House and Senate finally could go to conference.
The major difference, unresolved among the Democrats until late Wednesday, concerned the Senate's insistence on banning all campaign contributions by PACs. At the request of seven moderate Republicans whose support was crucial to overcoming an earlier GOP filibuster, the Senate included the PAC ban when it passed its version of the reforms last June. When the House finally acted five months later, however, it voted to retain the current $5,000 annual limit on PAC contributions.
There the matter rested until earlier this week, when House members--who rely more heavily on PAC contributions than do their Senate counterparts--grudgingly agreed to lower the PAC limit to $3,000 per year or $6,000 per two-year election cycle. However, that was not enough to satisfy the Senate GOP moderates, who, with two exceptions, all sided with Dole to defeat the second of three procedural motions required to send the bill to conference.