Washington — The Senate was recovering from yet another 'round-the-clock session, and Sen. Daniel Evans could do little more than roll his eyes and titter over the lunacy of it all. ``Now you know why I'm leaving,'' said the Republican from Washington state, who recently announced his impending retirement. Events of the past week have hardly showcased the Senate at its most efficacious. For four days, the ``world's greatest deliberative body'' has deliberated continuously as Republicans staged a filibuster of a Democratic bill that would change the way many Senate campaigns are financed.
Senators of both parties have hurled hair-curling invective at each other, comparing, for example, the Senate to the legislature of a ``banana republic'' and invoking images of Nazi gestapo agents to describe the tactics of some of their colleagues. Democrats and Republicans alike have also spent hours concoting exotic parliamentary maneuvers that would leave Machiavelli agog. Early Wednesday morning, a Republican Senator was even arrested and carried onto the Senate floor by a posse of Capitol Hill police officers.
And all this has occured because the two parties have been unable to agree on what sort of campaign finance reform proposal the Senate should vote on.
The campaign finance debacle pits Democrat against Republican in a fractious dispute. It has accelerated a steady deterioration of relations between the Senate's majority and minority factions, potentially complicating Democratic efforts to pass a raft of controversial legislation - from welfare reform to an array of contentious labor-related bills - before the end of the year.
Even moderate Republicans who have worked closely with Democrats openly suggest that the majority's agressive determination to force a vote on their reform legislation constitutes an open invitation to minority revolt. ``Let's put it this way, some Republicans won't be in a mood to do Democrats any favors,'' says Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, whose participation in a Republican boycott of a procedural Senate vote provoked his Wednesday morning arrest at the direction of Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Under other circumstances, campaign finance reform would not provoke this sort of high drama, though differences between the two sides run deep on this issue. The Democratic bill establishes voluntary spending limits in Senate races and offers public funds to those candidates who accept the limits. It also places an aggregate cap on the amount of money House and Senate candidates may accept from political action committees (PACs).
For an array of reasons, Republicans object to the Democratic proposal. Some assert that the cap on PAC contributions would be easily circumvented. Others express a philosophic objection to public financing of campaigns. Nearly all Republicans, however, fear that campaign spending limits would tend to cement into place the natural advantage most incumbents enjoy over their opponents - and, consequently, cement in place the Democrats' status as the majority party.
None of these dissagreements are new. A bipartisan group has labored for months to try to fashion a version of the bill acceptable to Republicans. Moreover, Senator Byrd tried and failed seven times last year to win the 60 votes necessary to override Republican objections and bring the bill to a vote.
But the campaign finance reform issue has become gradually but inexorably intertwined with two conflicting themes: Republican fears of becoming Congress' permanent minority and the Democrats' drive to implement an ambitious legislative agenda. That fact, coupled with the pressures Congress inevitably faces in a Presidential election year, has rendered easy compromise impossible and set the stage for this week's flashfire.
``The Republicans are drawing attention to the process itself, and away from the substance,'' complains Byrd. ``But this is a very serious issue . . . the American people demand a vote.''"
It is not at all clear that they are ever going to get one. For yet the eighth time, the Senate is scheduled to vote today to close off debate. Byrd will not say what he plans to do if that attempt, as expected, fails once again.