ON the face of it, the United States appears as close as it has ever been since 1974 to a sweeping reform of the way members of Congress finance their campaigns.
Both houses passed bills last year which, for the first time, provide for government financing of campaigns - a longtime goal of liberal lobbies such as Common Cause and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen. Congressional leaders, seeking to boost the ailing image of their institution, call campaign finance reform a "top priority."
Democratic staffers from the House and Senate are ironing out the bills' differences in advance of a members' conference. A bill could reach the president's desk in a matter of weeks.
But there is virtually no chance that President Bush will sign what Congress is likely to come up with, and little chance that Congress - which divides roughly along party lines on the issue - could override a veto.
"With each Congress, the process has advanced another step, but it's always on a partisan basis," says Steve Stockmeyer, a lobbyist for the National Association of Business Political Action Committees. "People need to feel like they've been doing something."
The basic framework of both bills is the same: partial taxpayer funding with voluntary spending limits. But there are differences. The House is more skittish about publicly financed matching funds than the Senate. The House would allow contributions from political action committees, while the Senate would ban them (though the Senate has already gone along with the House on this issue, say sources familiar with the staff discussions).
The House and Senate also take different positions on so-called "soft money," the money used by state parties for voter registration, get-out-the-vote-drives, and generic advertising. Opponents of soft money say it violates the spirit of federal campaign-spending limits. The Senate bill would try to stop it, while the House would allow the current practice.
For Bush, these differences are immaterial. The bills flunk on the fundamentals: public financing and spending limits.
Of these, public financing "is the toughest nut to crack," says Mike Mawby, a lobbyist for Common Cause.
Proponents argue that public financing would reduce the need for candidates to take money from political action committees and individuals seeking to influence legislation.
Senate Democrats want to do damage control on their image in the wake of the Keating Five scandal, in which savings-and-loan owner Charles Keating contributed heavily to five senators (four of them Democrats) and sparked allegations that they did him favors.
The House is reeling from its own scandals: unpaid House restaurant bills, check-kiting in the House bank, and cocaine sales from the House post office. The possibility of term limitations, though not an imminent threat, hangs over Congress's head as the public slams Congress in opinion polls.
Opponents of public financing say the public would never stand for even more taxpayer money going into politicians' pockets. "Food stamps for politicians," Republicans like to call it. After the House passed its bill in November, the Office of Management and Budget called the legislation "nothing more than a taxpayer- financed incumbent-protection plan."
Each side in the debate trots out opinion polls to back its position. When a 1990 poll by the Democratic consulting firm Greenberg-Lake asked whether "the federal government" should provide "a fixed amount of money for the election campaigns of candidates for Congress" and prohibit private contributions, 58 percent said it was a "good idea."
But in 1991, when the Republican consulting firm Tarrance & Associates asked voters if they would "favor or oppose new campaign-finance laws if it meant that taxpayer dollars would be used" to pay for congressional campaigns, 66 percent were opposed.
Both polls showed that campaign- finance reform is not high on voters' list of worries. But proponents of reform argue that if voters knew more about the current "system of thinly concealed bribery," as former Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire (D) has called it, they wouldn't stand for it.
The idea of proposing more government spending during a recession makes the public-financing provision even more problematic. In fact, Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D) of Connecticut, head of the House Democratic task force on campaign finance, had to remove any method of paying in order to ensure the bill's passage. That would come later as a part of tax legislation, he said.
Some Democrats in both houses went along and voted for reform because they're confident Bush will veto it anyway, say sources familiar with the vote. It was a free vote that allowed party unity and enabled congressmen to say they favor reform.
The House bill wound up echoing the Senate bill by suggesting that revenues be raised by limiting the tax deductions lobbyists can take for their expenses. The issue of how - or whether - to finance the bill before it reaches Bush's desk will be decided in the House-Senate conference.
"Everything is on the table in approaches to paying for the system," says Perry Pockros, Congressman Gejdenson's aide on the campaign-finance task force.
The issue of spending limits riles most Republicans, who charge that they are structured to keep challengers' campaigns below the level of viability and therefore maintain the Democrats' majority in both houses.
Dave Mason, a specialist on Congress at the conservative Heritage Foundation, adds that the bills also don't factor in the existing "taxpayer subsidy" to incumbents: their office space, their staffs, their travel, and other perquisites.
In a report issued last week, another Heritage analyst, Steven Schwalm, made numerous proposals designed to eliminate this built-in advantage, including restric- tions on the use of congressional staff in campaigns and ending incumbents' ability to transfer campaign funds from one election to the next.
Proponents of spending limits, which would have to be voluntary to be constitutional, respond that the caps prescribed in the House bill go beyond the cost of the average House race. "The caps even account for the escalating costs of campaigning, going about 150 percent above inflation," says Mr. Pockros.
Under the House plan, any candidate who agrees to limit spending to $600,000 per two-year election cycle would receive benefits such as discounted postage and as much as $200,000 in government matching funds. Within the $600,000 limit, no more than $200,000 could come from PACs and no more than $200,000 from individuals. House Republicans wanted a provision that would require candidates to collect at least half their contributions from their home districts.
Democrats don't like that idea because Republicans are better at raising money at home than they are. PAC money is considered outside money, and the overwhelming majority of PAC money goes to incumbents - a majority of whom, of course, are Democrats. VOTERS are sending mixed messages to presidential candidates this season and are spreading consternation through both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Balloting this week produced two Democratic front-runners - former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Some analysts say the neck-and-neck race between the two could go all the way to the Democratic national convention in July.
On the Republican side, President Bush is winning all the primaries, but Patrick Buchanan's insurgent campaign is garnering enough votes to ensure trouble for the White House for weeks to come. Party insiders, such as US Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, worry that the GOP could be damaged by the intense, often nasty infighting.
The next showdown comes in South Carolina on Saturday, followed quickly by Super Tuesday primaries extending from Texas to Florida to Massachusetts on March 10.
Mr. Clinton appears poised for the biggest short-term gains. His big win in Georgia on March 3 with 58 percent percent of the vote was his first victory of the campaign, and he was exultant.
But Tsongas was also cheered by triumphs in Maryland, Utah, and Washington State.
The biggest surprise of the day came in Colorado, where former California Gov. Jerry Brown catapulted into a first-place finish with a surge of support during the final 100 hours.
US Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa could also point to victories in the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses.
William Galston, former issues director for Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, says: "The Clinton campaign, in its wildest dreams, never believed it would get over 50 percent, much less nearly 60. This is really eye-popping, and it bodes well for him on Super Tuesday."
Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, says: "The Georgia results will propel Clinton all the way through Super Tuesday. No one is in a position to challenge him."
Yet Tsongas could also hail his performance. His first-place finish in New Hampshire last month was often discounted as a regional victory. But after his two primary victories outside New England on Tuesday he could say: "Today I became the breakthrough kid.... By winning Maryland and winning Utah, we have put that issue [of regionalism] to rest." Even though Tsongas and Clinton could puff out their chests after this week's voting, the party hardly seems closer to picking its nominee. Each has serious we aknesses.
Claibourne Darden Jr., an Atlanta pollster, was unimpressed by Clinton's performance in Georgia, for example. Turnout was exceedingly low, he observes, and Clinton "still is not a viable candidate nationally, any more than Jesse Jackson, who won Georgia's primary in 1988. This primary does not represent the people of Georgia."
Mr. Darden is equally skeptical about Tsongas's success. He says the Tsongas campaign, in organization, fund-raising, research, field staff, and "everything else a good, first-class campaign needs" lags far behind that of the 1988 candidate from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis.
The candidates this year are unusually weak, Darden concludes, adding: "People will always complain about their lack of choices, but this year it is acute."
Grumbling can also be heard about the Republicans.
Mr. Bush carried Georgia, where Mr. Buchanan had made his greatest effort since New Hampshire, by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent.
BUT in a worrisome signal, 44 percent of Buchanan's voters said they would not cast ballots for Bush in November. Buchanan's strategy of attacking the president on issues like school prayer and pornography are undermining Bush's strength with both moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party, exit surveys found in Georgia.
Del Ali, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, says the Bush-Buchanan spat is definitely beginning to hurt the president: "It doesn't guarantee the Democrats will capture the White House, but it is almost guaranteeing it will be a competitive general election."
Mr. Ali continues: "I honestly believe Buchanan now has a shot in California [in June], a good shot of embarrassing Bush there, or even winning California."
Ali explains that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California has slumped in popularity because of new sales taxes, and two simultaneous US Senate races there are also tearing at the fabric of the GOP. "So Wilson will endorse Bush, and Pat will go in and say, 'Wilson and Bush are clones [who raise taxes], and I am the true conservative. I am closer to Ronald Reagan, the greatest governor, and who are you going to vote for? Ali says.
But Dr. Galston doubts that Bush can be defeated, especially if one uses the 1976 Republican primary contest as a guide. That year, Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination, and even after Mr. Reagan carried some states, Mr. Ford got the party's endorsement.
Buchanan's challenge isn't nearly so serious, Galston says.