Clinton Prepares His Next Charge Up Capitol Hill

President's campaign-finance proposal seen as bid to gain ground after defeat of jobs bill

STUNG by events, President Clinton will strive to regain the initiative this week with a major new proposal seeking campaign finance reform for Congress.

The reform issue - extremely popular with American voters - could help Mr. Clinton recover from the tragic debacle in Waco, Texas, and the jolting defeat of his jobs bill on Capitol Hill.

Democrats, who rule both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in 12 years, call this an ideal moment to move on reform. Public anger about "big money" politics is boiling. Clinton vowed during his campaign to clean up the process.

Winning a major victory for reform won't be easy, however. Campaign reform plans bloom annually here like the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin, but then fade just as swiftly because of partisan squabbling.

Ellen Miller, a campaign-finance expert and executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, sums up the view of many lawmakers: "It's shocking to me to find, this early in the debate in Congress, that people are so pessimistic about what they can achieve."

The problem: an impasse over public funding, and a possible Republican filibuster. Democrats generally favor taxpayer funding of campaigns for Congress. Most Republicans oppose it.

Without some Republican help, Clinton could see his reform plan blocked by another GOP talkathon in the Senate.

The biggest hurdle for any reform plan, including Clinton's, is self-interest. Democrats, who hold most of the seats in Congress, say reform must include spending caps on candidates. Republicans worry that any ceiling on what they can spend would help Democratic incumbents stay in office.

Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas notes: "Obviously the Democrats are in power. They want to do what they think is going to keep them in power, and we'd rather do something to get us in power. So that's the fundamental difference on campaign finance."

Democratic insiders said that final details of the president's campaign finance proposal were still being refined over the weekend. A White House announcement is expected midweek.

Among the president's reform ideas floated during the past 72 hours were these:

* Increase the total amount that individuals may contribute to federal campaigns from $25,000 to $60,000.

* Clamp down on "soft money" contributions to political parties. These often benefit specific federal candidates and can greatly exceed normal contribution limits.

* Ban contributions from lobbyists to all federal candidates.

* Reduce the amount that political action committees may contribute to a candidate from $5,000 to $2,500.

* Set a "voluntary" cap on spending for House races of $750,000, or perhaps $800,000. Caps for Senate races would vary depending upon the population of the state.

In addition, Democrats will probably push for some kind of public financing, perhaps through taxpayer funding of media vouchers to pay for broadcast time. But Democrats worry about a public backlash. As one of them says: "Most Democrats favor public funding. But the public doesn't favor it. In the South, not only does the public not favor it, the public is adamantly against it."

That's why party leaders aren't sure whether in a showdown on campaign reform they can hold the votes of at least a half a dozen Democratic senators - James Exon of Nebraska, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Carl Levin of Michigan, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, and the two Louisiana senators, John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston.

Reform efforts are currently moving somewhat faster in the Senate than the House. A Democratic campaign finance bill (S.3) was approved by the Senate Rules Committee in March and could reach the floor next month.

S.3 duplicates a bill the Congress passed last year; President Bush vetoed it, as Congress knew he would. This time, the stakes are higher, since Clinton promises to sign a reform bill. When combined with proposals from the president, S.3 could provide the framework for the Democrats' reform effort.

Public Citizen, a lobbying group, estimates taxpayer financing under S.3, without expected amendments, would cost taxpayers $209 million for each two-year election cycle.

Those costs apparently alarm the public, which has its eyes focused on the nation's $320 billion annual deficit. House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, while personally supporting taxpayer financing, recently told reporters: "I still believe in it, in principle. I despair of getting it enacted because the public attitudes are so hostile to it."

The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress cannot put mandatory limits on spending in federal elections, saying to do so would violate free speech. To steer around this ruling, Democrats would use public financing as a carrot: Anyone who accepted public money must abide by "voluntary" limits on spending. Republicans say that's using federal money to buy off candidates' First Amendment rights.

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