WASHINGTON — CONGRESS is once again wrangling over campaign finance reform, and the outcome, as usual, is very much in question. At odds are Democrats, who want a cap on campaign spending, which now is unlimited, and Republicans, who don't. The proposed spending cap would vary from $950,000 to $5.5 million based on the voting-age population in each state. Last year the Democratic-dominated Senate and House failed to reach a compromise on their separate proposals, in part because the House would not accept Senate insistence on ending contributions by political-action committees, the so-called PACs.
Even if Congress should agree on one bill, no guarantee exists that President Bush would approve it.
As members of Congress from both parties are uncomfortably aware, the current discussion is being played out against a background of growing public concern about the relationship between political contributions and Congressional action.
The most visible example in Washington is the so-called Keating Five case, which revolves around sizable political contributions by savings-and-loan owner Charles Keating to five senators or their causes, and the question of whether a relationship existed between the contributions and the senators' actions.
Polls indicate Americans feel members of Congress pay more attention to the desires of campaign contributors than to those of voters.
At present, congressional action is in the Senate, which is debating a Democratic proposal to reform the way presidential and congressional campaigns are financed. Democrats who favor this measure especially want to cap spending in each congressional contest and decrease or ban funds from political-action committees.
"All of us realize something is badly wrong," says a prime sponsor of the Democratic proposal, Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, when it now costs an average of $4 million to win a Senate campaign - about $1.87 per vote.
"The spiral continues," Senator Boren says. "Members of Congress have to go nationwide to raise money, and raise money from people in many cases unknown to them."
Thus, backers of this Democratic proposal say its centerpiece is the most important reform: putting a cap on spending. The cap would be voluntary, with incentives for candidates to adhere to it; the US Supreme Court has said a mandatory cap would be unconstitutional.
Anything less than a spending cap "does not deal with the real issue and will create the appearance, but not the fact, of reform," says Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, a prime proponent of the measure.
The Democratic proposal also would end contributions to congressional campaigns by political-action committees, and provide some funds for candidates from the federal Treasury.
Republicans object that putting a limit on spending would have the effect of ensuring a Democratic congressional majority, given the many advantages of incumbency.
More than 95 percent of congressional incumbents who sought reelection last fall won, and Democrats hold majorities in each house.
Putting spending limits on political races "is like putting a rock on Jell-O," says Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky - neither the Jell-O nor the contributions are held in check.
Limiting political contributions is an unconstitutional limit on the free speech of candidates, McConnell and other Republicans charge.
New Democratic changes that would reduce the amount of federal subsidies - Senator Boren now puts it at $25 million a year - draw brickbats from two directions. Some proponents of subsidy say that's too little.
Senator McConnell and other opponents say it inevitably would soar: "Did you ever see a federal program that didn't continue to grow?" he asks.