REPUBLICANS in Congress do not have the votes to pass campaign finance reform, but they do have one powerful option: Embarrass the majority Democrats.
While Democrats in the House of Representatives dicker over the details of a reform bill, Republicans are demanding two major changes in the way candidates raise money. Both have wide public support:
* Ban all PACs. Political-action committees, which are sponsored by businesses, unions, and other organizations, pump millions of dollars into campaigns for Congress. The GOP would cut those contributions to zero.
* Local fund-raising. Republicans would require candidates for the House to raise most of their campaign cash inside their own congressional districts. No longer could candidates rush to New York or Hollywood to plead for a majority of their funds from special-interest groups and movie stars.
``This package represents real reform,'' says Rep. Bill Thomas (R) of California. ``It gives the power back to the people.''
The Republican plan has virtually no chance of passage. But it isolates House Democrats, leaving them the sole defenders of PACs. The Senate, under Democratic leadership, voted June 17 to ban PAC-giving to any federal campaign - Senate, House, or presidential.
Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana was chairman of a 16-member Republican task force that worked for seven months to craft the party's proposals. Representative Livingston says the plan ``addresses the strong cynicism'' that Americans have about their elections. It brings elections closer to the people without using any taxpayer dollars as the Democratic plan would do.
Even if the GOP proposal were adopted, however, it could eventually be slapped down as unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court.
Most scholars agree that the court is unwilling to permit Congress to outlaw PACs. It is through PACs that farmers, businessmen, doctors, and others with special interests give contributions to candidates in one lump sum. PACs provide these groups with more influence. The courts are loathe to take away such rights.
House Republicans, like their Senate colleagues, recognize the PAC provision could be struck down. If it were, they have a back-up position: Limit PAC contributions for any single candidate to $1,000, down from $5,000.
The court could be equally unreceptive to limiting contributions from outside a congressional district. Since there is no proof that such contributions corrupt the political process, the court could find it overly restrictive.
House Democrats collect far more from PACs than Republicans, and will resist any efforts to kill the golden goose. But Democrats argue that protecting PACs is more than self-interest. As a senior Democratic aide working on campaign reform says, ``Eliminating PACs doesn't do anything for the system. It disenfranchises 12 million Americans who give to PACs.''
The Republican proposal to restrict money flowing into a district campaign also draws Democratic opposition. The aide argues: ``It works against women and minority candidates who do not have appeal to the local concentrated interests.''
The GOP bill includes several other key elements:
* Campaign war chests. Incumbents often begin a new campaign with $100,000 or more left over from the previous race. If that happens, the opposing party could match the war chest for the challenger.
* Soft money. Unregulated giving to political parties would be banned. The soft money ``loophole'' allows special interests to make huge contributions to a federal campaign above what is normally permitted.
* Bundling. Lobbyists would be prohibited from collecting large numbers of checks from individuals to give to a single candidate.
* Labor unions. Dues paid by members could not be used for political purposes without written permission.
* Wealthy candidates. If a contender spends more than $250,000 in personal funds, all contribution limits would be lifted for his or her opponent.
The latter provision deals with what Republican whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia calls ``the greatest single danger'' to American politics - namely, ``the ability of millionaires [like Texas billionaire Ross Perot] to buy power.''
The current system is so dependent on big spending that a millionaire can virtually own a House seat ``as a hobby,'' Representative Gingrich charges.
But the PAC ban is the hottest GOP proposal. Most PAC money now is given to congressional committee chairmen and other powerful incumbents. In most cases, that means Democrats.
``The entire system of PAC contributions represents an unacceptable threat to the very foundation of representative democracy,'' say Rep. Martin Hoke (R) of Ohio.
Even the entire GOP package wouldn't halt special interest influence, however. Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida sought to close yet another loophole this week when he proposed banning all lobbyist-paid travel for congressmen and their staffs.