For nearly two weeks, the US Senate has plunged back into an art nearly lost in the last 50 years - debate. Wide open, chest-swelling, arm-flinging debate.
There's no script here. No procedural game plan worked out in some party leader's back office, with permissible amendments parsed and set in stone. This debate can go anywhere, and has.
It's old-fashioned, rough-and-tumble rugby democracy - the kind illustrated in those lithographs of great oratorical moments (Clay, Calhoun, and Webster) that adorn office walls throughout the Senate - long before floor leaders, assistant whips, and others were invented to hone and control the process.
At stake is an issue every senator knows intimately - the influence of money in politics. The proposed changes in campaign-finance law, expected to be voted by the end of this week,will alter the ground rules and prospects for every candidate for national office.
The outcome of this debate is as up close and personal as it gets for a politician. That accounts for much of the eloquence - and passion - in this week's floor speeches and back room dealing.
"You have to go much earlier in the Senate's history to find an analogous situation," says Senate Historian Richard Baker. "Even the leaders really don't know how it's going to come out day by day."
Supporters say the issue all comes down to a "simple, very obvious truth": that campaign contributions from a single source that run into hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars "are not healthy to a democracy."
"Is that not self-evident? It is to the people," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a co-sponsor of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001, in the opening speech of this debate.
Today's bill is a stripped-down version of proposals that were successfully squelched in previous Senate sessions. At its core is a ban on so-called soft money in national campaigns.
Putting his presidential-campaign prestige on the line, Senator McCain wrested these two weeks of freewheeling debate from a reluctant Republican leadership. He threatened to grind the Senate to a halt if majority leader Trent Lott did not grant his demand for two weeks of open debate on this issue.
In the past, efforts to reform the system of campaign finance have evolved into textbook cases of procedural maneuvering. The past two McCain-Feingold efforts bogged down in GOP filibusters and procedural wrangling.
This time around, however, Senate leaders are barely in evidence. Normally, Senator Lott and his mandarins decide who will speak and what amendments will be offered well in advance of the debate. It's like being tipped off to the answers of Jeopardy questions - no surprises.
But during the past two weeks, senators often haven't known who was going to propose what until someone stepped up to a floor microphone. All this then led to hastily called meetings in the aisles and back rooms.
"I'm not giving away my strategy," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, a leading opponent of campaign finance reform at one point in the process.
Neither were others. On Monday, for instance, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, a self-identified supporter of reform, proposed a surprise amendment that some say could sink the bill. Senator Wellstone proposed strong curbs on campaign ads by advocacy groups. The move took McCain by surprise, especially after leading opponents of the bill switched their vote to support it.
Even expected moves have taken unexpected twists - as in the case of the so-called Hagel amendment to limit - but not ban - soft money. Early on, supporters of reform determined that the plan, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, was the greatest danger in this debate, since it preserved the worst abuse in the system - soft money.
When it looked like his amendment would go down to defeat, Senator Hagel proposed breaking it into three parts. The call caught Democrats off guard. After some protest, Democrats called for a quorum (a standard delaying device) and huddled with McCain to sort out what it might mean.
McCain assured the group it was not a device to tie up or delay the debate (he had Hagel's assurance). It would be all right, he said. Result: the motion was accepted.
While the past two weeks have been unusual, campaign finance has stirred strong passions before. During the 1978-88 session, then-Democratic majority leader Robert Byrd unearthed an obscure Senate rule to have a Republican colleague arrested and physically carried onto the Senate floor in the early morning hours in a bid to break a Republican filibuster. He also forced two all-night sessions and eight cloture votes (a record).
Still, the effort failed.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor