Bitterest foe of fund-raising overhaul draws his sword

Sen. Mitch McConnell promises a filibuster - again - to put down latest

To his enemies, Sen. Mitch McConnell is the Darth Vader of campaign-finance overhaul - personifying the evil of politics awash in corrupting big money.

Yet to supporters, he is a saber-wielding Jedi knight for free speech.

For good or ill, the coolly confrontational Republican from Kentucky is poised today to deliver a coup de grce to legislation that would ban the flood of unregulated "soft money" into federal campaigns.

Senator McConnell is prepared to filibuster to block a scaled-down version of a bipartisan bill that would end soft-money donations by corporations, unions, and individuals. The House passed a broader campaign-finance bill last month. But in the Senate, John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin so far lack the 60 votes needed to end McConnell's promised filibuster.

"One thing you can be certain of, when you hear the three words campaign-finance reform - somebody is trying to take away your right to speak," says the well-rehearsed senior senator. "They want the speech police." This is vintage McConnell.

After all, he has been successfully fighting for more than a decade to hold the doors wide open for money in politics. Since 1996, he has overseen fund-raising as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, bringing in tens of millions of dollars to help finance GOP candidates.

If McConnell had his way, there would be more dollars flowing in, not less - both to strengthen political parties and widen the range of contenders. "It's almost impossible to recruit challengers in big states now, unless they happen to be personally wealthy," he complains.

Yet McConnell claims his mission is not just to fill the war chest of the GOP, which has historically raised more soft money than the Democrats - an estimated $162 million versus $117 million nationwide in the past 2-1/2 years. It's a matter of freedom, he says.

"Spending is speech," he says in a measured twang. McConnell's argument, simply put, is that the more you spend, the more you can "amplify your voice" and "compete in the marketplace of ideas." The government has no right to limit spending on political messages, unless they expressly advocate voting for or against a certain candidate, he contends.

McConnell has won an impressive array of ideological allies on the right and left, from the Christian Coalition to the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the low-key McConnell doesn't always fit the image of a feisty First Amendment crusader. With his wire-rimmed glasses and almost invisible eyebrows, he often comes across more like a stern school principal.

In fact, his painstaking mastery of the details of federal election law has enabled him to emerge as the GOP point man on the unglamorous yet vital issue of campaign finance.

A lawyer by training, McConnell reportedly first got hooked on campaign finance while teaching a political-science class in the mid-1970s, when the last major attempt to limit contributions and tighten regulations took place in the wake of Watergate.

McConnell showed tenaciousness in becoming the first Republican in three decades to win a state race in traditionally Democratic Kentucky. In 1996, he became the only Republican in state history to be elected to three full Senate terms.

'Mr. Republican'

In Louisville, McConnell is known as "Mr. Republican," having worked hard to build up the state's struggling party organization and masterminding the rise of its now 6-to-1 GOP-heavy congressional delegation.

In Washington, he has honed a reputation as a staunch party loyalist and defender of Kentucky interests in tobacco. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal election law.

Ironically, McConnell may have an easier time dispensing with the latest scaled-down McCain-Feingold bill. Unlike the original bill and the House-passed version, this bill bans soft-money donations to political parties but does not restrict "issue advocacy" advertising by outside groups.

Senator McCain says it is vital to end the corrupting rise of soft money, which he links to a growth of special-interest tax breaks, pork spending, and influence in Congress since the 1980s.

"All of us are influenced by big money," says presidential candidate McCain. Without naming names, he hinted, for example, that tobacco companies had rewarded McConnell and others for defeating legislation to regulate the tobacco industry.

But the new bill, designed to draw Republican votes, has alienated some Democrats who favor broader changes.

Marginalizing political parties

Both pro-reform senators and foes like McConnell argue that political parties will be marginalized by the bill, because millions of dollars in soft money will flow into the unregulated forum of issue advertising by third parties.

"American politics [will] become a surrogate fight between the NRA and gun-control advocates, or polluters and the Sierra Club, fought over the heads of American political parties," says Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

McConnell further argues that Republicans rely more on soft money and would lose ground to Democrats.

"We would be dramatically disadvantaged ... and I'm not in favor of unilateral disarmament," he says.

Confident of victory for now, McConnell nevertheless likens the overhaul of campaign finance to a crazed murderer who refuses to die.

"This issue is like Glenn Close in the bathtub at the end of 'Fatal Attraction,' " he says. "I don't think it will ever go away."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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