Drive to Change Campaign Finance Gains in Congress

Backbenchers lead attack on 'money politics'

SOME call it the real term limits.

Instead of mollifying angry voters by limiting politicians' tenure in office, change campaign-finance rules to give challengers a better shot at incumbents who have big war chests.

For two decades, campaign-finance reform has foundered in Washington as incumbents have resisted yielding the funding advantages of office. Suddenly, prospects for change seem better than ever.

For the first time in a decade, Congress has a bipartisan reform bill. For the first time ever, the same bill, albeit with minor changes, has been introduced in both chambers. It is, to be sure, a backbench revolt by reform-minded lawmakers, but one that may force the leadership on both sides of the aisle to go along.

GOP presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander are talking about campaign-finance reform. It has helped fuel Ross Perot's third-party movement. Disgust with current money politics is one reason for the pervasiveness of voter angst and helps explain why many people are captivated with political neophytes like Colin Powell.

Today will provide the clearest indicator yet of the prospects for campaign-finance reform in the GOP Congress, when Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia testifies on the bill before a House committee. The testimony of Mr. Gingrich, who has authored his own reform bills in the past, will be crucial in determining the bill's fate.

Sen. John McCain (R) Arizona, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, is cautiously optimistic: ''I'm a realist. It took nine years for the line-item veto, and we still don't have that. There are intense pressures behind this bill, but it will take a hard battle.''

The McCain bill, co-written with Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, includes four points:

* Voluntary spending limits. These caps for Senate candidates would be based on each state's voting-age population, and would range from $950,000 in smaller states to $5.5 million in states such as California. If the latter seems higher than your grocery bills, consider that Dianne Feinstein (D) and Michael Huffington (R) spent a combined $44.5 million in the 1994 battle for her California Senate seat.

* Free and reduced-rate television. Candidates holding to the voluntary spending caps would be given up to 30 minutes of free air time.

* Restrictions on political action committees. The bill would either ban PACs entirely, or hold total PAC contributions to 20 percent of the state spending cap.

* Abolishes soft money. This money to political parties comes from corporations and unions, which are prohibited from contributing directly to federal campaigns. These funds are then handed down to the state parties, enabling them to influence elections.

Ann McBride, head of the Washington-based watchdog Common Cause, argues that if the bill succeeds, it would obviate the need for term limits. The vital provision for leveling the playing field, she says, is soft money.

''If it doesn't end soft money, it's not real reform,'' she says.

The Senate bill was introduced in September, but a bipartisan team in the House sponsored an adapted version last week, on which today's hearings are centered. On the House side, Republican freshman Linda Smith of Washington joined veteran Reps. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut and Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts.

The hearings today are one thing. Getting to a vote is another. McCain and Feingold, for their part, plan to play hardball. If they don't get a vote this year, they'll attach the bill as an amendment to every piece of legislation next year.

If Gingrich indicates he'll allow a vote on the House side, there's still Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas to consider. The last time he was majority leader, in 1985-86, he continually blocked a vote on a bipartisan reform bill.

This time, with Mr. Perot and Mr. Buchanan pushing the issue, Mr. Dole may have no choice but to allow a vote.

Feingold's main worry, meanwhile, is that the leadership on both sides of the aisle may try to co-opt the issue. Democratic leaders in the Senate yesterday offered an alternative reform bill, announced by Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

''This bill is not going to make the leadership smile on either side,'' Feingold says. ''If they take it up, it will probably fail. The leadership didn't like the gift ban [a bill curbing lobbyists' gifts that passed early this year], and they don't like this.''

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