February 24, 1998 in Nation/World

Campaign Reform Gets ‘Poison Pill’ From Gop Senate Majority Appears Confident Nobody Will Notice

Edwin Chen Los Angeles Times
 

The Senate Republican majority began its election year drive to kill campaign finance reform Monday, confident that the public won’t notice - or care - if Congress leaves election laws unchanged despite two years of revelations of fund-raising improprieties by both parties.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott offered as the GOP’s sole prescription a measure to restrict the use of union dues for political purposes.

But labor-friendly Democrats, who seek broad and stricter campaign contribution limits, denounced Lott’s measure as “a poison pill” designed to derail the reform effort.

The instant polarization foreshadowed a partisan stalemate that will likely doom campaign finance reform for the year.

Instead of “more controls, more restrictions,” Lott said, “we should go the other way.”

The split in the Senate, largely along party lines, leaves few doubts about the debate’s outcome. Indeed Lott flatly predicted “a replay of the events of last fall,” when the Senate became hopelessly gridlocked over the issue and then moved on to other business.

Reopening the floor debate on Monday, Lott called his bill “an American thing” and insisted that it must be “the gate through which campaign finance reform must proceed - if it is to proceed at all.”

The Mississippi Republican also signaled his determination to not let the issue fester in the chamber, noting pointedly that the Senate has pending before it “some really very important issues.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., a key reform advocate, belittled Lott’s proposal as a smoke screen, saying that it does not begin to address the massive fund-raising transgressions by both parties in 1996 that he said amounted to a “virtual destruction” of election law reforms enacted after the Watergate scandal.

The broad reform plan authored by Feingold and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is close to garnering a majority backing. It now has as co-sponsors all 45 Senate Democrats and three other Republicans: Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

But it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, and neither side has that many; hence the deadlock.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban “soft money,” or unregulated donations to political parties that often are channeled to individual campaigns. Such funds were at the center of congressional investigations into irregularities during the 1996 presidential campaigns.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has led the attack on McCain-Feingold, saying the bill is unconstitutional because it would restrict free speech - in the form of money.

To counter the McCain-Feingold bill, Lott and the GOP majority in the Senate are promoting the “Paycheck Protection Act,” which would bar unions from using members’ dues for campaign donations without their prior, written authorization.

That goes well beyond a similar provision in the McCain-Feingold bill, which would simply require unions to notify their nonunion members that they are entitled to a refund of the portion of their “agency” fees used for political purposes.

Lott argued that an individual’s right to be free from compulsory political payments should begin before the payment is made, not after.

Democrats have accused the GOP of seeking revenge against organized labor because unions spent some $35 million on TV ads in 1996 to promote Democrats and attack Republicans. But Lott refuted the charge, saying the GOP’s position is based on principle.

Procedurally, and by unanimous consent, McCain and Feingold were allowed Monday to introduce their bill as a substitute to Lott’s proposal. A vote to table the McCain-Feingold bill is scheduled for Tuesday, but it is unlikely to garner the required 60 votes. Similarly, a vote to kill Lott’s bill also is not expected to prevail.

xxxx PARTY FAVORS The instant polarization foreshadowed a partisan stalemate that will likely doom campaign finance reform for the year.


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