Senate leaders agreed Tuesday to a full floor debate on campaign finance reform this year, hours after President Clinton threatened to convene a special session of Congress if necessary to force an airing of the issue.
His intentions came in a letter to, and requested by, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who had been at loggerheads with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., over scheduling debate on whether to revamp election-financing laws.
But shortly after Daschle released Clinton’s letter Tuesday, he and Lott told an unusually large gathering of their colleagues on the Senate floor to expect the high-stakes debate to commence in late October or early November.
Their announcement marked a breakthrough considered unlikely only a few weeks ago and demonstrated that campaign reform - widely presumed to be a doomed issue - is far from dead.
However, reform proponents readily acknowledged that huge obstacles remain to a wholesale rewriting of campaign laws. Nevertheless, they were elated that the titanic battle for - and against - banning “soft money” and other fund-raising techniques will be pushed into the open.
“This is exactly what a bully pulpit is for,” said an enthusiastic Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., co-author of a reform proposal who has been working closely with top White House aides on the issue.
But one of his bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, reacted far more cautiously, fretting that Clinton’s threat may further politicize an increasingly partisan controversy.
Moments later, her concerns proved well-founded.
In a brief interview, Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., struck a combative note, saying Clinton may be able to invoke his constitutional powers to convene a special session of Congress, “but we can also adjourn. He can’t make us pass legislation.”
White House press secretary Mike McCurry agreed with that assessment. “We can’t tell Congress what to do. Our Constitution doesn’t work that way,” he said. “But we can keep them here until there’s an adequate time for members of the Senate to be recorded yea or nay on the measure.”
The harshest GOP words came from the office of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In a statement, his press secretary Christina Martin said: “If the president would like to call a special session of Congress, we would be happy to spend the extra time investigating with laser-sharp focus any of the 30 current Clinton-Gore scandals …” It went on to itemize such allegations.
Despite the breakthrough on a Senate debate, Lott refused to say exactly when he will bring up the Feingold bill, co-authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But Lott added: “It’s not my intention to drag this out” to the final days of the session, which is expected to adjourn by Nov. 14.
In a testy exchange with Lott on Friday, Daschle refused to agree to a GOP proposal to bring up the McCain-Feingold bill sometime “prior to” adjournment, saying that wouldn’t prevent Lott from bringing up the bill on the session’s last day.
Also on Capitol Hill Tuesday, partisan bickering erupted as Senate Democrats invoked a rarely used parliamentary procedure to halt all committee hearings in protest of the continuing GOP investigation of a disputed election won last November by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
In all, seven committee sessions were disrupted; it was unclear whether they will be thwarted today.
xxxx Reform bill The campaign finance overhaul legislation named for its chief sponsors, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., would: Ban unlimited soft-money contributions to political parties. Soft money is not supposed to be used to further specific candidates’ campaigns. More clearly delineate whether advocacy groups are supporting issues or candidates. Require quicker, better campaign contribution and spending disclosures and increase penalties for violations. Bar political parties from spending for candidates who don’t limit personal spending to $50,000 on their own election. Require labor unions to tell nonunion members they can get refunds on fees used for political purposes.