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National Perspective | POLITICS

McCain Sees New Hope for Campaign Bill

November 30, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) may have lost his presidential bid this year but he has gained new allies on his signature issue: campaign finance reform.

Surveying the results of the 2000 Senate elections, McCain said Wednesday that he believes there now will be enough votes to prevent the GOP filibuster that for years has thwarted action on legislation to impose sharp new curbs on campaign fund-raising.

McCain also made clear that he is more than willing to add to the tumult sure to swirl around the next president and the new Congress, saying that he would attempt to bring the Senate to a halt unless Republican leaders agree to bring his reform initiative to an early vote.

"I'm going to insist it be brought up at the earliest opportunity--which is very shortly after" the new Congress convenes in January, said McCain, who lost the GOP presidential nomination to George W. Bush earlier this year. "I guarantee we will have a vigorous ventilation" of views.

Bush Not Likely to Welcome Initiative

That push for early action on campaign finance reform could put Bush in a tough spot if he is sworn in as president on Jan. 20. McCain could mar whatever honeymoon period the new president gets by forcing a Senate vote on a bill Bush opposes.

But if Al Gore emerges as the winner of the presidential contest, McCain's efforts likely would be welcomed by the White House. The Democrat promised that campaign finance reform would be the first bill his administration sends to Congress.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the leading opponent of McCain's legislation, acknowledged that his Arizona colleague would be operating from a stronger position in the new Congress. But McConnell was not discouraged: He noted that he managed to defeat a similar bill with far fewer Republicans in the Senate in 1994. Still, McConnell is not yet sure what strategy he will pursue in the new Congress.

"Regardless of the shifting numbers, we have a new set of players and everyone is going to take a fresh look at the issue," McConnell said.

Some campaign finance reform advocates remain cautious. They fear that some lawmakers who have supported their cause in the past may wriggle away if it looks like the measure could become law.

"Nowadays it's popular to talk the right way" about supporting reform, said Meredith McGehee, senior vice president of Common Cause, which has lobbied for campaign finance reform for decades. "The real proof is when they go vote. When it becomes a real [prospect], funny things happen."

The core of the bill that McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) have pushed would ban "soft money"--the unlimited and virtually unregulated contributions that unions, corporations and individuals can make to political parties. The parties can use that money for a range of purposes, including television ads, as long as their efforts stop short of directly touting a candidate.

The McCain-Feingold bill is one of many whose prospects would be decisively shaped by the outcome of the disputed presidential election. Gore has promised to push the campaign finance bill, but Bush might veto it. During the campaign, Bush argued that McCain's bill would produce a campaign finance system unfairly skewed in favor of Democrats' labor union allies.

In the most recent Congress, the House has passed legislation backed by McCain and Feingold. But a stripped-down version of that bill died in the Senate. A majority of senators supported the legislation, but reform advocates fell seven votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster led by McConnell and other GOP leaders.

In the 2000 Senate elections, Democrats narrowed the GOP's 54-46 majority. It could end up a 50-50 split between the parties if Democrat Maria Cantwell retains a slender lead in a recount in Washington state and if Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) does not resign to become vice president. As a result, McCain and Feingold say they are close to having 60 votes for the bill--or at least for cutting off a filibuster to allow a vote.

They assume that they would have the support of all Senate Democrats. There also will be seven Republicans in the new Senate who at different times in recent years have voted with McCain at least to bring the bill to a vote: James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas. Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), a newcomer to the Senate, has never voted on the issue but is considered sympathetic to the cause of campaign finance reform.

Counting McCain, that means there may be nine Republicans joining as many as 50 Democrats to break a filibuster on campaign reform legislation. And McCain is confident that in that scenario, he could rustle up one more GOP vote.

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