IT is the best of times, it is the worst of times for campaign reformers in the nation's capital.
The best of times because every major political leader in Washington, from the White House to Capitol Hill, now champions some kind of change in the way America pays for its elections.
The worst of times because leaders don't agree how the system should be fixed. And if they fail this time, any chance for comprehensive reform will probably be lost for years.
The laurels of success, or the onus of failure, will fall directly on President Clinton and the Democratic Congress. They have the votes. They promised change. Yet the obstacles to reform may be insurmountable.
A campaign-reform bill rumbled successfully through the Senate on June 17, but the real test will come in the House of Representatives. Within days, House Democrats plan to unveil a package of ideas to clean up the electoral process, which is heavily influenced by special interests and $100,000 donors.
Details of the House plan are already leaking out, and what's known leaves many experts uncomfortable, just as the Senate plan does.
``I just don't see how [this] constitutes real reform,'' says Ellen Miller, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics. One of Ms. Miller's prime complaints: Democrats plan to set spending at approximately $750,000-per-candidate in House races. That's more than most of them spend now.
Yet the tide for some kind of change is strong. Majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri has thrown his full weight into finding an acceptable plan. House Republicans have their own reform task force.
Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington has worked longer on reform than almost anyone in the House. He describes Representative Gephardt's efforts to find a compromise as ``monumental,'' adding, ``It will not be for lack of trying if it doesn't happen.''
In an earlier interview, however, Representative Swift said that after grappling with this issue for years, it was only recently that he figured out why the House has so much trouble with it. He blames the House's diversity.
``We have rural areas, we've got suburban districts, we've got urban districts, we have `super-urban' districts like New York and Los Angeles. We have more minorities who tell us they ... raise money differently. We have more women who argue they raise their money very differently from men,'' he says. ``The effort to get a one-size-fits-all kind of reform runs into this enormous problem in the House.''
THERE is another snag. Republicans and Demo-crats are deeply divided over how to pay for elections. Republicans want to outlaw contributions from political-action committees, while Democrats favor PACs. Democrats favor a new tax on campaign contributions to pay for partial public funding of campaigns. Republicans are opposed.
The showdown in the House will be fought on the tax and funding issues. Democrats are expected to propose that each House candidate could raise $200,000 from PACs, another $200,000 from large contributors, and $200,000 from small contributors. In addition, each candidate could collect $150,000 from contributors to pay for overhead expenses like fund-raising.
The overall spending limit of $750,000 must be voluntary, the United States Supreme Court says. To encourage candidates to comply, the Democratic bill would reward those who stay within these limits with a bonus of vouchers to buy TV time worth $200,000. The vouchers would be funded by a new tax of between 5 percent and 7 percent on all contributions to House candidates.
Republicans react to the tax idea with horror. Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana calls it a ``Robin Hood tax,'' which would take money from a contributor and turn it over to another candidate whom ``they can't stand.'' He dubs it a ``new speech tax.''
Opposition extends beyond partisan lines. Robert Peck of the American Civil Liberties Union says in one report on the Democratic plan: ``Because it is a tax aimed at expressive activity, it is an unconstitutional tax.''
The Florida Supreme Court seemed to agree last year when it threw out a similar 1.5 percent state tax on PACs and political parties. The court ruled the tax unconstitutional because it was ``a substantial burden on ... First Amendment rights.''
Democrats are having problems resolving the issue even among themselves. One participant in party caucuses says, ``There's not been much agreement on anything, and a lot of yelling and elbowing.''
Democrats are pushing ahead. But even party insiders concede that it will be difficult to avoid ``the worst of times'' for reform in this Congress.