A longstanding drive within Congress to tighten federal controls over campaign funding faces an important test next month in the Senate, where advocates are pursuing a high-risk strategy to halt what they call a corrupting flood of unrestricted money in US elections.
Senate backers of campaign-finance reform have introduced a dramatically scaled- back version of their bill in a bid to overcome an anticipated Republican-led filibuster - the tactic that has repeatedly defeated such efforts in the past.
"I am ... a realist and know that we must not let the perfect bill be the enemy of real reform," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona as he announced the new bipartisan bill jointly sponsored with Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin.
By limiting the latest bill to a ban on "soft-money" donations, Senator Feingold says he and Senator McCain seek to "change the dynamic" and sway colleagues who opposed measures contained in the broader, original version as unconstitutional. Although 52 senators backed the more comprehensive bill last year, eight more votes are needed to overcome a filibuster.
Still, the whittled-down version could also draw criticism as too weak, especially from Senate Democrats who seek more sweeping changes.
The new Senate bill would ban one of the most controversial aspects of the US campaign-finance system put in place in 1974 - the burgeoning use since the 1980s of unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties to indirectly back candidates.
Soft money consists of fund-raising that occurs outside the scope of federal laws. It allows parties to collect unlimited and unregulated contributions or gifts from unions, corporations, and wealthy people. These are supposed to be used solely for party-building activities and not to promote individual candidates.
Yet such soft-money contributions in recent years have become a mainstay of party fund-raising, multiplying from about $19 million in 1980 to $86 million in 1992 and more than $260 million in 1996. Overall, the national parties raised more than $55 million in soft money during the first six months of 1999 - 80 percent more than during the same period in the last presidential election cycle, according to Common Cause, a Washington pro-reform group.
Advocates of reform contend that the ballooning soft-money contributions have made federal limits meaningless, allowed parties to circumvent controls on aiding candidates, and revived the problems of corruption and undue influence that the 1970s reforms attempted to eradicate.
But opponents contend that the rise of soft money has strengthened national political parties and thus boosted citizen participation in elections.
So far, success has eluded congressional advocates of campaign-finance reform. Despite the passage of several bills by the House, most have died in the Senate or been vetoed by the president. Last week, much as it did last year, the House passed a comprehensive reform bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut and Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts by a 252-to-177 vote.
However, proponents of the reform in the Senate hope the dynamic there will be different this year when the new bill comes to the floor by Oct. 12. Although the bare-bones McCain-Feingold bill only bans soft money, amendments that could beef up the measure will be allowed, according to an agreement reached with Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.
Supporters of reform hope that senators will offer amendments to tailor the bill to their liking, meaning that "everyone is a possible convert," says McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives.
GOP senators who have expressed some willingness to back reform include Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon. Others considered possible backers include freshmen senators and those in tough reelection campaigns. Last year, all 45 Democrats joined seven Republicans voting for the McCain-Feingold bill.
Advocates also believe the broader political environment is more favorable to campaign-finance reform today than a year ago. The issue has greater visibility, partly thanks to backing for aspects of reform from presidential candidates, including Republicans McCain and Gov. George W. Bush, as well as Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley.
The Senate also has a greater window - a full year - to pursue passage of a reform bill, even if it meets with an initial filibuster. "There is a lot more time to focus public pressure on the Senate," says Donald Simon, executive director of Common Cause. "If it doesn't break a filibuster now, it will be back." Although he conceded, "there's no question it's a tough fight."
Indeed, Senate opponents, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, say they are confident the issue will again go down in defeat. Senator McConnell says the ban on soft money would unfairly disadvantage Republicans.
Republicans, heavily backed by corporations, have historically raised more soft money than Democrats, who enjoy more labor support. "If you get rid of soft money, Republicans would suffer more than Democrats," says a Senate Republican staff member.
Meanwhile, Republicans and some Democrats voice concern that the curtailed McCain-Feingold bill would not work, because the cash banned as soft-money contributions would simply flow into electoral politics through other avenues.
A voting record on campaign finance
Since 1990, Congress has considered campaign-finance reform bills that include a range of issues, from voluntary candidate-spending limits, to capping contributions from political action committees, to the recent 'soft money' bans. Here are some key votes.
Year House Senate President 1990 255-155 in favor 59-40 in favor veto 1991-92 273-156 in favor 56-42 in favor veto 1993 (R) 173-263 against 60-38 in favor (D) 255-175 in favor tabled 1995-96 162-259 against 177-243 against tabled 1998 252-179 in favor tabled 1999 252-177 in favor pending Source: CRS Campaign Finance Reform Briefing Book
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society