Constitutional Avenger Takes On Reformers

Kentucky senator opposes campaign finance reform, saying it violates free speech.

Mitch McConnell is the point man out to defeat the latest effort to reform how America finances its campaigns.

The Republican senator, a self-described "First Amendment hawk," is once again taking a central role in opposing the McCain-Feingold bill now before the Senate.

The Bluegrass State's first three-term Republican senator is no stranger to this battle. Senator McConnell has won victory after victory over those who want to change the way American political campaigns are funded. He won floor fights in 1990, 1991, 1993, and 1996; fought off a House-Senate conference report in 1992; and waged a successful filibuster in 1994.

"He's obviously been the key player in opposition to the liberal reform schemes," says David Mason of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Without somebody playing the role that he's played, McCain-Feingold would have passed in the last Congress, and it probably would have already passed in this one."

Even Sen. John McCain, co-sponsor of the reform bill, admires McConnell's forthrightness. "I respect him because he's willing to stand up for what he really believes in instead of saying, 'I'm for campaign finance reform, but,'" says Senator McCain (R) of Arizona.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban "soft money," or contributions to political parties, which are not subject to the rules governing presidential campaigns. It would also prohibit issue-advocacy ads airing within 60 days of an election from directly referring to a candidate, increase disclosure requirements, prevent parties from spending on candidates who spend more than $50,000 of their own money, and require unions to refund to nonmembers - who request it - the percentage of their union dues spent on political activities.

A stumbling block to campaign-finance reform has been the need to find a way around the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision. The high court held that limiting campaign spending was the equivalent of limiting free speech and that independent spending could not be limited.

McCain-Feingold tries to avoid the constitutional issue by limiting the content of issue ads in the last 60 days, but not banning them entirely.

But McConnell isn't buying any limits on the constitutional guarantee of free speech. "You begin and you end this debate with the First Amendment...," he says. "This is core political speech, according to the US Supreme Court. That is not Mitch McConnell's interpretation.... This is the law of the land."

McCONNELL'S stand is not just a political pose. "No one should doubt that he is passionately committed to the interpretation he has of the Constitution and Supreme Court decisions," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts.

At his swearing-in ceremonies - as a county judge and later as senator - he held in his left hand his family Bible, which belonged to his grandfather. The lawyerly, bespectacled McConnell has a mild-mannered air, yet the Almanac of American Politics calls him "one of the most partisan Republicans in the Senate ... an assiduous attacker of Democrats."

But McConnell didn't put partisanship above principles in the last Congress, when as chairman of the ethics committee he took strong action against Republican Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon. Senator Packwood was found to have altered his diaries before submitting them to the committee, which was investigating sexual-harassment allegations. Packwood ultimately resigned.

McConnell came to the Senate in 1985 after a stint as judge-executive of Jefferson County, Ky. He worked hard to build up the state's Republican Party and has seen its congressional delegation go from five Democrats and two Republicans to five Republicans and one Democrat. (The commonwealth lost a congressional seat after the last census.)

The Kentuckian scoffs at those who say the system is "awash in money." He says more spending means more political participation. Depite record levels of spending in the 1996 campaign, he says, "we spent per eligible voter $3.89, about the price of a McDonald's value meal. Looking at it another way, of all the commercials that were shown on television last year, 1 percent of them were political commercials. And [supporters of reform] say we are speaking too much."

McCain was scheduled to submit an amendment to his bill yesterday; Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was also set to offer a Republican substitute. The substitute will probably include daily full disclosure on the Internet of campaign contributions and a ban on unions using dues for political activities without the permission of individual members - a provision Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota calls a "poison pill."

Passage of McCain-Feingold will be an uphill fight. Advocates count 49 votes so far in favor of the bill, including all 45 Democrats. But 60 votes are needed to kill a filibuster and 32 Republicans came out squarely against the measure in a letter to President Clinton. Its prospects in the House are even less certain.

But McConnell has defended this turf before and has no doubt about the outcome: "We are not going to pass this unconstitutional piece of legislation," he says.

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