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GOP Unhappy at Path of Campaign Hearings

Politics: Republicans want focus kept on White House. But decision to target overall fund-raising relieves Democrats and gladdens reformers.


WASHINGTON — After a week of powerful hearings that had Republicans applauding, the Senate committee investigating fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign has now set on a course that has many in the GOP wringing their hands.

Sen. Fred Thompson's surprise decision to shift the focus of his hearings from White House misdeeds to flaws in the overall campaign-finance system has filled reformers with enthusiasm, relieved Democrats and divided Republicans.

The unexpected tilt by Thompson, a charismatic first-term Republican from Tennessee, could add momentum to the drive by Democrats and a handful of Republicans to force action in the next few weeks on legislation to ban the unregulated "soft money" contributions that are at the heart of the fund-raising controversy.

But most Republicans, who vastly out-raise Democrats in the soft-money derby, remain hostile to that legislation. And many in the GOP are scratching their heads at Thompson's decision to dim the spotlight on White House fund-raising just as a succession of dramatic witnesses during the past 10 days appeared to finally catch the public's attention.

"So, for the first time people are beginning to connect the story to the administration, Vice President Al Gore's [poll] numbers are plummeting, people are beginning to understand what the vice president and president did went way beyond the pale--and we are going to stop?" asked GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

In fact, though, committee sources say that both sides had their own reasons to call at least a temporary halt to the investigative proceedings. Paradoxically, while each side on the committee seemed to fear it was running out of investigative ammunition, both also worried that their party's activities remained vulnerable to further attacks from the other.

"Members on both sides are tired of the rancor and unpleasantness," said one Democratic aide on the committee. "Even the most partisan among them have lost their stomach for the proceedings."

So far, the hearings have exerted the most pressure on Democrats. Now, the proceedings could create the greatest difficulty for the Senate Republican leadership, which was happy to see Thompson probe questionable activities at the White House but is hoping to block the campaign-finance reform bill Thompson supports.

"They [the leadership] thought they could control this, but they were wrong," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group advocating campaign-finance reform. "These hearings made an overwhelming case for campaign-finance reform because they just laid bare how this system functions."


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who co-wrote the principal campaign-finance reform bill with Democrat Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, said in an interview that Thompson's decision to shift toward "solutions" will be "quite helpful" in generating momentum for the legislation.

Even so, the prospects for campaign-finance reform remain uncertain in the Senate and are even dimmer in the House.

As the hearings have slowly drawn public attention to the huge sums of money collected for the 1996 campaign, they have inevitably provided grist for reformers demanding changes in the system. All 45 Senate Democrats--many of whom were skeptical of earlier incarnations of reform--recently endorsed the McCain-Feingold legislation.

But only two other Republicans have signed on: Thompson and freshman Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another member of the investigative committee. That leaves the sponsors two votes short of the 50 needed to pass the bill--with a potential tie-breaking vote from Gore--and an imposing 12 votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.

Last week, McCain and Feingold tried to broaden their legislation's appeal by stripping out many of the most controversial elements and reducing it to a core package, the key provision of which would ban the unlimited soft-money contributions the national political parties can now collect to conduct so-called party-building activities.


Yet even when narrowed to that central issue, the legislation faces an uphill struggle. On Friday, an apparent deal to schedule the bill for floor consideration collapsed in acrimony between Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate. Many Republicans say they will not support limits on soft money without constraints on political spending by organized labor, which overwhelmingly benefits Democrats. Whenever the reform bill finally comes to the floor, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) plans to offer an amendment to limit organized labor's political activities that, if approved, could force Democrats into a filibuster to kill the legislation.

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