- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2000

ALBANY Rep. Rick Lazio, displaying a sheaf of signed statements that would eliminate the use of soft money from New York's Senate campaign, yesterday issued an ultimatum to his opponent, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I'll give her 72 hours to respond," Mr. Lazio said, addressing a group of newspaper editors and reporters at a conference here. His aides handed the press copies of the statements, signed by 14 groups Mrs. Clinton had claimed were major soft-money supporters of the Lazio campaign.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is a test of character for Mrs. Clinton," the Long Island Republican said.

Mr. Lazio asked his opponent to collect promises from 13 of her own soft-money donors including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers to close all soft-money accounts, refrain from opening any new soft-money accounts and call on all groups outside the campaigns to stop running ads.

"I am prepared to do that," Mrs. Clinton responded an hour later, addressing the same collection of journalists. "We're going to have to look at everything, but there are some groups we can't control."

Soft money refers to the unlimited contributions that can be indirectly injected into a campaign through groups outside a candidate's official campaign. The candidates themselves must rely on hard money, which is limited and regulated by federal election laws.

The soft-money issue arose during the Clinton-Lazio debate last week when Mr. Lazio ceremoniously presented Mrs. Clinton with a statement, which he pre-signed, that was titled "New York Freedom From Soft Money Pact."

When he asked her to join him, she said, "Well, I would be happy to when you give me the signed letters."

Yesterday, he gave her the letters and his campaign immediately issued a press release declaring: "Lazio Calls Hillary's Soft Money Bluff."

Mr. Lazio called it a "defining issue."

"Now we have eliminated any smoke screen that might be left," he said. "We don't need a law in Washington to do the right thing."

A mutual agreement would make the high-profile Senate race even more special; it would become the first major campaign to use a self-imposed form of campaign finance reform. Mr. Lazio is a supporter of Arizona Sen. John McCain's plan to ban all soft money from elections.

The Lazio campaign said Tuesday that it had closed its "Friends of Rick Lazio" soft-money committee, which the Clinton campaign had criticized.

Mr. Lazio's fund held less than $87,000, according to federal records. But since January 1999, it raised almost $390,000 and spent just over $300,000.

Mr. Lazio warned that if Mrs. Clinton fails to secure the signatures to hold up her end of the deal, "we will have to fight fire with fire."

Lazio campaign operative Mike Murphy said the 72-hour window is inflexible.

"We were given the list of groups to get signatures from and did it quickly," Mr. Murphy said. "She can do that as well."

Included on the list of off-limits donors as dictated by the Lazio campaign are the National Abortion Rights League, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the Democratic National Committee.

Mrs. Clinton's largest political-action donor group has been organized labor, which accounts for almost one-third of her $685,000 in donations from such groups.

These organizations are not covered by the soft-money ban.

Several conservative groups initially refused to take themselves out of the soft-money donor group, including the American Conservative Union, which said it has allocated around $7 million to the Lazio-Clinton race in the form of ads that attack the first lady.

If the soft-money ban takes effect, the ACU has agreed to remove the ads, which began airing last week.

"The line has really changed in the last four days," said ACU spokesman Ian Walters. "This has really turned into a major issue and it became clear that with all the other groups signing, our refusal would obfuscate the effort."

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