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Campaign finance debate

Steven Thomma & James Kuhnhenn(Knight Ridder/Tribune)/WASHINGTON -- After a two-week debate that begins Monday, the Senate could enact the most significant change to the way politicians finance their campaigns since an overhaul prompted 27 years ago by former President Richard Nixon and his Watergate scandal.

Or it could end up preserving a status quo that might frustrate Americans but serves politicians.

Supporters believe they have enough votes to pass the legislation. They are depending on outrage over the unregulated flow of money into politics, scandals linked to that money and the ability of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to marshal public opinion for reform.

But the politics of the issue is shifting, and the outcome remains uncertain. Some powerful interest groups, including organized labor, oppose key elements. Several Democrats have grown leery of changing the system. And despite the taint of scandal, the American people may not care enough to force change.

"Americans are concerned about integrity in government," McCain insisted this week. "They believe the system is broken."

Yet McCain knows that the country is of two minds. There are those who are drawn to him as the maverick war hero who wraps political reform into a broad and appealing call to support causes "greater than one's own self-interest." They fueled his presidential campaign last year and flood into town hall meetings he holds around the country with his fellow would-be reformer, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.

There are also the millions of Americans who say they support campaign reform if asked, but are either too uninterested or too skeptical about the chance for meaningful change to raise the issue themselves. When the Harris poll asked Americans earlier this month to list the most important issues facing the government, campaign reform was not among the top seven.

"The answer is going to rest with the American people," McCain said this week. "If the American people hold (Congress') feet to the fire, we will win. If the American people don't care that much, we will lose."

McCain and others see campaign cash as a corrosive influence that gives the wealthy too large a voice in influencing laws and federal policies. Corporate fat cats and labor bosses who can hand over $100,000 checks have the loudest voices, he and others say; they gain disproportionate influence over issues such as how to design a patients' bill of rights, how to expand Medicare and pay for prescription drugs, or which taxes to cut.

"The big-money special interest groups sit in the front row, and the average citizen sits in the back," said Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Ky.

If McCain wins, it would be only the fourth time in the last hundred years that Americans and their government have gone beyond griping about money in politics to enact major reforms.

The first was in 1907, when Theodore Roosevelt pushed through a ban on political contributions from corporations in response to the corruption of the Gilded Age. The second was in 1947, when the government banned contributions from labor unions to curb their fast-growing clout. And the last was in 1974, when Congress imposed $1,000 per person limits on contributions to federal candidates in answer to the political corruption exposed in the Watergate scandal. In addition to the infamous break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, the ensuing investigations revealed widespread abuses of political money.

But the Watergate reforms left a loophole that opened the way for donors eventually to funnel unlimited amounts of cash to political parties, which spend it promoting their candidates.

The parties and their leaders covet this ready cash, called "soft money," the fastest growing bankroll they can find.

In the 2000 campaign, the two major parties and their candidates raised $717 million in regulated contributions, up 70 percent from 1992.

But their haul of $487 million in unregulated contributions was up 466 percent from 1992.

Reaching for the big checks has exposed politicians to more than wealthy citizens. It also has left them open to questions about whether they are selling out their public trust to the highest bidders.

The proposal by McCain and Feingold would ban the unregulated contributions known as "soft money." It would allow only contributions subjected to the "hard" limits of $1,000 per person or $5,000 per political action committee. It also would attempt to limit the independent use of unregulated money by corporations and unions by prohibiting them from financing political ads within 60 days of an election.

"The chances for passage are quite good," said McCain adviser Howard Opinsky. "We have the 50-plus votes that are needed for passage."

But McCain and Feingold still face a torrent of challenges.

One major hurdle is President Bush. He prefers an alternative approach from Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. It would allow continued contributions to the parties, but limit them to $120,000 in a two-year campaign. It also would raise the 1974 limit on contributions to candidates themselves from $1,000 to $3,000 per election.

Another obstacle is the possible loss of support from several Democrats. The party has long supported the ban on soft money, particularly when Democrats lagged behind Republicans in raising it and when Republican opposition assured that the bill never would pass the Senate.

But now, with the Senate evenly divided between the two parties, the bill might well become law. And some Democrats question why they should abandon soft money just when they had pulled even with Republicans.

"We are competitive on soft money," said Sen. John Breaux, D-La., as he announced this week that he will vote against the bill. "We have to deal not in theory but in the practical, real consequences of legislation."

Said Feingold: "There might be some knocking of knees, nervousness, whatever you want to call it, over in the Senate, including on the Democratic side. . . . This will be the truth test."

Other challenges include opposition from organized labor to the proposed ban on advertising within 60 days of an election, and from interest groups to a proposed requirement that they disclose more about their sources of money. Many groups say this would muzzle them and deny their right to free speech.

Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the proposal would effectively prohibit groups -- whether the NAACP or the National Rifle Association -- from running ads criticizing candidates for president or Congress.

"This bill represents a double-barreled attack on political freedom," said Murphy.

As he heads toward the Senate floor for the climactic legislative battle he has sought for years, McCain acknowledges that getting there was only the first fight, and that he cannot win the next one alone.

"We never expected to win this inside the Beltway," he said. "We will win only if the American people demand change. And if they don't, there will be more scandals."

(c) 2001 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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