Campaign Finance Reformers Attempt To Thread the Needle

Is this really it?

Now that the Senate is finally debating a bill to reform the campaign-finance system - after weeks of embarrassing testimony exposing the excesses of the 1996 campaign - does this mean change is at hand?

Probably not. But in the game of politics, even the most skilled maneuverers can't always control the flow of events. The fact is that a bill calling for modest changes in campaign fund-raising is on the Senate floor, including a provision to ban "soft money," those unlimited donations to political parties that create the appearance of influence-buying.

If the bill's supporters play the game just right - and if the opponents make mistakes - then maybe, just maybe, legislation could pass both houses of Congress, political analysts say.

But getting from here to there won't be easy. "It is the smallest of needles to thread," says Larry Sabato, an expert on campaign-finance reform at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

For starters, the way in which Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi launched the debate Friday - with just a day's notice - left reform advocates scrambling. Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin had not even finished drafting the new, scaled-back version of their bill, the centerpiece of debate. That will be issued today.

Senator Lott, it appeared, was calling the reformers' bluff. The inside-the-Beltway clamor for a floor debate - including public pressure from key members of Lott's own party - made it clear that he couldn't stall the issue forever. Better to get it off the docket now, before the reformers lined up more support.

So far, Senator McCain has rallied only three fellow Senate Republicans to his side. All 45 Senate Democrats back the McCain- Feingold effort, but the total is still well shy of the 60 votes needed to end an expected filibuster on the bill when it comes up for a vote Oct. 6 or 7. Getting McCain-Feingold-esque legislation through the more-polarized House will be even tougher.

In the Senate, Lott has another arrow in his quiver - competing legislation. He has not unveiled his plan yet, but it is expected to offer colleagues a way to vote for reform without having to vote for McCain-Feingold. Expect, in addition, senators to try to attach amendments to McCain-Feingold itself that would make the bill unacceptable to Democrats, such as provisions restricting organized labor's involvement in campaigns.

AS much as most congressmen dislike the issue of campaign-finance reform - the current system, after all, got them elected - floor debate isn't all that rare. The more comprehensive version of McCain-Feingold had two days of Senate debate last year before the bill was shot down. A wholly different version of campaign reform - one calling for limited public financing of campaigns - went before both houses of Congress in 1993 before dying. Under President Bush (and a Democratic Congress), legislation passed in both houses, but Mr. Bush vetoed it.

Some political analysts say the current effort is just another trip around the same barn, with the same result: no change. "I've been following this 25 years, and it's the same old same old," says Bernadette Budde, an analyst with the Business and Industry Political Action Committee, which opposes McCain-Feingold and prefers instead better disclosure of campaign donations.

But others argue that the excesses of the 1996 campaign blew the lid off any limits that were put in place 23 years ago, and that a cynical public really does want change.

"The challenge for supporters [of McCain-Feingold] will be to frame a choice for senators that makes it too uncomfortable to vote against it," says Thomas Mann, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. That goal, he says, is tough but not unattainable.

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