WASHINGTON — High above the Senate floor, the lights shone brightly for the TV cameras. One by one, the 91 men and 9 women made known their positions on a minor amendment in a roll-call vote.
But the real action was taking place far from the spotlight.
Around the corner, in a 19th century "American Renaissance" parlor, two junior senators huddled conspiratorially on an overstuffed, red leather couch.
If campaign finance reform is enacted by this Congress, the half-hour tete-a-tete between Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) that March afternoon may prove to be a milestone in the long struggle to overhaul the nation's election-financing laws.
For that meeting opened a series of discreet negotiations and late-night legislative drafting sessions that led Collins, a senator for all of six months, to publicly defy her bosses while giving campaign finance reform a needed boost.
Even if the reform drive fizzles, Collins' enlistment in a crusade led by Feingold and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) serves as an object lesson in the triumph of one lawmaker's concern for clean government over partisan politics.
Her decision to co-sponsor the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill came amid intense pressure from GOP Senate leaders, who have unabashedly made known their intention to punish any Republican who backs the measure.
Placing political convictions before career considerations, the 44-year-old Collins put at risk her other pet issues, and even her chances of landing a choice committee assignment any time soon.
"It's a difficult decision, particularly as a freshman, to go against your leadership when you know they feel strongly on an issue," Collins said. "It's difficult because I consider myself to be a good Republican, and I believe in Republican principles. But I don't see this as a partisan issue. I see it as a good-government issue. And it's something that I just had to follow my own conscience on."
Collins' involvement also reveals the extent to which McCain and Feingold are willing to make strategic compromises--and how the trio now are embarked on a strategy to promote their legislation while plotting toward a September showdown in the Senate.
A onetime Senate aide to William S. Cohen, now Defense secretary, Collins became a student of campaign finance reform long before she took her oath of office.
During her Senate campaign last year, after beating two multimillionaires for the Republican nomination, Collins developed her own campaign finance reform proposal and pledged to make it a top priority if elected. Coincidentally, on the same day Collins won her seat, the voters of Maine approved a major campaign finance reform ballot initiative that would provide candidates with public financing.
In Washington, Collins was still operating out of a temporary basement office when McCain dropped by. Having campaigned for Collins, he was well aware of her interest in the issue.
"I told him that I was very interested in the [McCain-Feingold] bill but that I wanted to introduce my own bill," Collins recalled.
McCain did not push. "One of the things I'm not very good at is twisting people's arms," he explained.
As spring approached, the Senate became embroiled in a dispute over the scope of the upcoming investigation by the Governmental Affairs Committee of campaign fund-raising practices.
Most Republicans, led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), wanted a narrowly focused probe. But the Democrats demanded a broader scope, and McCain and the committee's chairman, Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), joined them--believing that the airing of abuses by both parties would lead to campaign finance reform.
Lott backed down after several other GOP senators--Collins among them--argued strongly for a broad investigation.
Shortly after that, Feingold sought out Collins. "All along, she was on our short list," he said.
As the two sat down in the President's Room just off the Senate floor, Collins was surprised--and impressed--to see Feingold armed with a pile of her campaign material, including her campaign finance reform proposal.
"We have a lot in common," he told her. "We have very common goals. Your ideas differ in some ways, but I think we can start negotiating."
Before developing her own proposal, Collins had studied numerous reform plans, including the McCain-Feingold bill of 1995, which had gone nowhere in the Senate.
Like theirs, Collins' bill included spending limits, particularly on the amount that wealthy candidates may spend from their own pockets. To her, such a limit must be "the cornerstone" of any legislation.
Collins also strongly agreed with another provision of the McCain-Feingold proposal: the elimination of "soft money"--unregulated contributions to the political parties that she called "the mother of all campaign loopholes."
But Collins disagreed with some provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill, including a ban on contributions by political action committees (PACs).