Sen. John McCain is using the introduction of his bill to regulate “soft” campaign donations as a tool to solicit supporters for hard cash contributions to his political action committee.
“I want to ask for your support as we fight to pass legislation that will change the way our campaigns are financed and restore the people’s faith in their government,” Mr. McCain wrote to supporters late last week, urging them to sign a petition.
“Along with your petition, I hope you will send in a contribution of $75, $50, $25 or whatever you can afford at this time,” the Arizona Republican said. “Your contribution to Straight Talk America will not only be a big help, it will send a clear message that we have the strength and resources to get our reform agenda passed.”
McCain spokeswoman Nancy Ives said there was nothing contradictory about combining an update on campaign finance legislation with a pitch for campaign donations to Mr. McCain’s PAC, Straight Talk America.
“The McCain-Feingold bill bans soft money,” Miss Ives said. “It does not ban or limit any of the hard money.”
“Soft” campaign donations are given to political parties and pay primarily for issue ads to be used for or against candidates, without expressly telling the audience how to vote. Hard-money contributions are donated directly to a candidate.
During the Republican presidential primary, Mr. McCain was the target of issue ads financed by supporters of George W. Bush.
Charles Lewis, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, said it “looks peculiar for a senator to be raising money so he can reform.”
“It is a little incongruous,” Mr. Lewis said. “But everything in Washington is artificial. The problem [for Mr. McCain] is that it costs money to get your message out. It’s going to have to come from somewhere, somehow.”
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi announced on Friday that the Senate would consider the McCain-Feingold bill by mid-March. Mr. Lott also pledged that Republicans would not try to stall the legislation with prolonged floor debate known as a filibuster.
Mr. McCain, in his letter, urged supporters to visit his PAC’s Web site and sign a petition “so that I can show the president and my colleagues in the U.S. Senate and House that millions of Americans strongly support” the added campaign finance regulations.
President Bush said he would support campaign finance legislation if it includes so-called “paycheck protection” to prevent labor unions from taking money from workers’ wages without their consent. Mr. McCain’s bill does not include such a provision.
“By banning soft money the huge unregulated contributions to political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals our campaign finance legislation will help reduce the influence of wealthy special interests on public policy,” Mr. McCain wrote.
His letter asks for “generous contributions.”
Miss Ives said the purpose of the Straight Talk America PAC “is to encourage a grass-roots effort to reform the way campaigns are financed.”
“The most egregious problem is soft money, which keeps the average American in the back of the room while the special interests have a seat at the table,” Miss Ives said.
She said Mr. McCain is asking for small donations from “Americans who want their government back.”
Mr. Lewis acknowledged that Mr. McCain, as a sitting senator, “on the face of it does not need any more money” to pass a bill. But he said Mr. McCain is trying to mount “a grass-roots offensive around the nation” to build support for his proposed regulations in states whose senators have opposed the legislation previously.
“He has to generate the perception of grass-roots support,” Mr. Lewis said. “If there is no grass-roots interest in the bill, he will very possibly lose.”
The timetable for debate on the bill in the Senate grants Mr. McCain’s insistence that the issue come up for a vote early in the year. Mr. Lott said it also allows Mr. Bush “the opportunity that I thought he deserved … to roll out his agenda.”
Mr. Lott has said the Senate will vote on Mr. Bush’s education plan and possibly on a budget as well before the campaign finance measure comes to the floor.
McCain-Feingold, favored by most congressional Democrats, has picked up some Republican support this year as incumbent senators eye the 2002 election. Yet public opinion polls consistently rate campaign finance regulations far below voters’ priorities, such as education and prescription drug benefits.
Mr. McCain told supporters he promised during his failed presidential campaign “that I would continue in the battle to bring true reform to government.”
“I am convinced that until we clean up campaign finance laws, until we get rid of the influence of special interests and their money in Washington, we cannot have real government reform, lower taxes, reduced government spending and waste, and a government as honorable as the people it serves,” he said.