WASHINGTON — When David Stewart, a card-carrying union welder, objected in 1995 to having his dues used for political donations, his protest hardly seemed destined to take center stage in a national debate on campaign finance reform, now headed for a climactic Senate showdown on Tuesday.
But at a Tulsa, Okla., town hall meeting two years ago, Stewart's words resonated with Sen. Don Nickles. The Oklahoma Republican then authored a "Paycheck Protection Act" to bar unions from using members' dues for campaign donations without their prior, written authorization.
Now that high-priority GOP bill, championed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, is creating a legislative logjam that in all likelihood will kill a major campaign finance reform bill.
"There is no doubt the odds are stacked against us," conceded Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the lead reform advocate.
Indeed, the prospects seem so gloomy that McCain and most of his allies are looking ahead to a fresh start next year--and warning of political retribution in 1998.
"This issue is not going to go away," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a pro-reform citizens advocacy group.
"It's going to be very hard for this Congress--after the most corrupt elections since Watergate, a Congress that spent millions of dollars investigating the abuses--to go home and say: 'Oh, we decided to do nothing about it,' " she added.
If blame is to be assigned, however, the public is not exempt. All along, reformers--including many of America's church leaders--have called on citizens to rise up and demand reform.
But that public outcry never came--a fact that will be poignantly underscored Monday, when Common Cause delivers to the Senate 1 million-plus signatures on petitions calling for reform.
That number may seem impressive, but in fact it falls short of the original goal by hundreds of thousands, and the signatures come more than three months past Common Cause's initial deadline.
In the end, the latest reform drive may well contribute little more than a few more recorded votes to the 114 that the Senate already has cast on the issue in the past 10 years.
The legislation under consideration, authored by McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), would ban "soft money," or unregulated donations to political parties that often are channeled to individual campaigns. Such funds are at the center of current investigations into irregularities during last year's campaigns.
The bill also would establish a "bright line" test 60 days out from an election to differentiate between political ads and true issue ads, with the former subjected to federal restrictions and reporting requirements.
In addition, the bill would halve, to $2,500, the maximum contribution a political action committee may give; it also would require greater disclosure.
Co-sponsored by four Senate Republicans, the measure has 49 declared backers in all--just one vote shy of passage.
But Senate rules--and Lott--have created obstacles that appear all but insurmountable for the bill's backers.
Using his prerogatives as majority leader, Lott has attached the "Paycheck Protection Act" as an amendment to the McCain-Feingold measure--thus making his own proposal the pending question.
Every one of the Senate's 45 Democrats considers the Lott amendment "a poison pill," but they appear to lack votes to kill it, leaving them little choice but to filibuster the amendment.
At the same time, however, Lott also appears to lack the necessary 60 votes to overcome such a filibuster.
On Friday, the GOP leadership scheduled votes to end a presumed Democratic filibuster for Tuesday afternoon. In addition, it set a second vote that would terminate a presumed GOP filibuster; it too is expected to fail.
Hence, the resulting stalemate could well lead Lott to declare an impasse and then yank the McCain-Feingold bill from the Senate agenda--a possibility Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) already has anticipated.
"Pulling McCain-Feingold does not end the debate . . . because our intention is to offer it as an amendment to whatever piece of legislation comes before the body [next]," Daschle warned.
McCain and Feingold also are said to be considering such a tactic, perhaps offering a scaled-down version of their bill that would simply ban soft money.
But with the Congress nearing the end of its current session, there are few legislative opportunities left for them to carry out their intentions.
Nevertheless, McCain vowed: "I can assure you that if we don't make it this time, we're going to be back, and back, and back until Congress is persuaded--not by us, but by the people that this is their priority."
The "Paycheck Protection Act" goes far beyond a similar provision in the McCain-Feingold bill. The latter would simply require unions to notify their nonunion members that they are entitled to a refund of the portion of their "agency" fees used for political purposes.
But that's not good enough for Lott or Nickles, now the assistant Senate majority leader. "An individual's right to be free from compulsory political payments should begin before the payment is made, not after," Nickles said, adding that their amendment "is going to be a part of the [final] package. Or there won't be a package."
He and other Republicans insisted that the measure is not a retribution against organized labor, which spent about $35 million on TV ads in 1996 to promote Democrats and attack Republicans.
Stewart also said he is "not anti-union," noting that he has earned "decent" wages and benefits as a member of the Transport Workers Union of America.
The Lott-Nickles proposal, Stewart said, would allow him to "object to the collection . . . of my hard-earned money for political views and agendas I oppose, yet continue to . . . support those affairs of my union that I have no opposition to."