After a week of powerful hearings that had Republicans applauding, the Senate committee investigating fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign has 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 enthused reformers, 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 the 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 incredulously.
In fact, though, committee sources say that both sides had their reasons to call at least a temporary halt to the investigative proceedings. Paradoxically, while each side on the committee seemed to fear that 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 that 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-authored the principal campaign-finance reform bill with Democrat Russell 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.
During the next few weeks, Thompson’s committee will try to make the case for systemic reform by calling critics of the campaign-finance system and representatives from a variety of nonprofit groups that played controversial roles in the 1996 campaign. “If these hearings contribute to reforming the system, I think Sen. Thompson will consider that the most important result,” said Paul Clark, GOP spokesman.
The new schedule means investigators will still probe the practices of groups such as the AFL-CIO and the Christian Coalition, but in a more cursory and less confrontational manner. Thompson aides insist that they can still reopen the investigative proceedings at any point until their authority expires on Dec. 31.
Democrats clearly saw the end of the scandal phase of the hearings as a way to turn off a barrage of negative publicity that intensified in the past few weeks as Thompson sharpened his focus on questionable White House fund-raising practices.
Republicans cut short the proceedings for more complicated reasons. Sources said some believed that they had effectively demonstrated their case against the White House fund-raising operation. By ending the investigative phase now, aides also noted, Republicans pre-empted a week’s worth of hearings on GOP activities that Democrats had been promised.
Others close to the process acknowledged that both parties faced substantial pressure from their own constituency groups to avoid an exhaustive investigation into their electoral activities.
Yet many Republicans are frustrated that Thompson is shifting direction just as colorful witnesses had brought the controversy to life with vivid testimony.
“Across this town a lot of Republicans will be throwing up in their trash cans,” said one leading GOP strategist.