- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

President Bush yesterday told Congress he wants to ban unregulated political contributions by corporations and labor unions but not individuals, setting up a Senate showdown with rival Sen. John McCain, who wants an all-out ban on so-called "soft money."
"I think we ought to get rid of labor union and corporate soft money," Mr. Bush said. "And I know we need to make sure … that corporate shareholders and labor union members have got a say-so on how their money is spent."
But Mr. Bush said "democracy is first and foremost about the rights of individuals to express their views." He supports increasing the amount now at $1,000 per year that individuals can give to candidates as well as leaving individual soft-money contributions unrestricted. Soft money is money given by individuals and groups to parties rather than "hard" individual donations to candidates.
Mr. McCain, soundly defeated by the former Texas governor for the Republican presidential nomination, campaigned on a total ban on soft money, which increased from $84 million in 1992 to more than $500 million in last year's election.
The Arizona Republican and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, are co-sponsors of a bipartisan campaign finance reform bill, which is set for two weeks of Senate debate beginning next week. While Mr. Bush's "principles" of reform differ from theirs, the two senators last night applauded the president's proposal.
"We especially praise the president for reiterating his support for a total ban on corporate and union soft money," they said in a joint statement. "While we believe more needs to be done in this area and that the individual loophole must also be closed, completely banning corporate and union soft money is a key component of any acceptable legislation."
Still, Mr. McCain signaled later he will not give up without a fight. In an interview on MSNBC's "Hardball" last night, the senator said he would not support allowing individuals to give soft-money donations.
Asked how his bill differs from Mr. Bush's principles, Mr. McCain said, "It's a two word response: Denise Rich."
Mrs. Rich is the former wife of billionaire fugitive financier Marc Rich who donated more than $1.5 million in soft money to Democrats, including former President Bill Clinton, who granted the fugitive an 11th-hour pardon.
Mr. Bush, in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, intended to "highlight my principles for reform," said he supports a provision requiring employee approval before union dues are used for political purposes. He also said he wants to prohibit corporations from using treasury funds for political activity without the permission of shareholders.
"No one should be forced to support a candidate or cause against his or her will," the president said in the letter.
Democrats oppose the provision on labor unions known as "paycheck protection" but support a ban on corporate soft money. Republicans, on the other hand, argue they will be giving up a huge cash source while Democrats can continue tapping labor's deep pockets.
"Reform should not favor any one party over another," Mr. Bush said in his letter.
Mr. Bush also said that he supports a provision for the "entire bill to be sent back to Congress for further adjustments and deliberations" should any part be deemed unconstitutional.
In addition, Mr. Bush called for "full and prompt disclosure" of political donations and expenditures "so voters will have complete and timely information on which to make informed decisions."
The campaign finance reform bill introduced by Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold would ban:
National parties from soliciting, receiving, directing or spending soft money.
State parties from spending soft money on federal election activities, such as "issue ads" that promote or attack a federal candidate.
Federal officeholders and candidates from raising or spending soft money, or directing soft money to a party or other entity.
Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana on Tuesday became the first Democrat to abandon Mr. McCain's reform initiative. He told the Associated Press banning soft money would hurt Democrats, who match Republicans in raising soft-money donations but can't compete in raising hard-money donations given directly to candidates.
While the two parties were almost even in soft money raised last year, Republicans led Democrats in receiving hard-money contributions by a whopping $447 million to $270 million.
"Any reform has to create a level playing field," Mr. Breaux said. "You have to look at the practical effects, not just the theoretical effects."
Mr. Feingold said more Democrats could run for cover now that the bill appears to have a realistic chance of passage.
Fearing the loss of labor union money, some senators are eyeing a far less sweeping bill sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican. His measure would limit soft-money donations to national political parties at $60,000 per contributor per year and raise the limit on donations to individual candidates to $3,000 annually.
The Hagel plan has been derided by Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold as hollow reform because it would legitimize the soft-money loophole and allow soft-money contributions to continue.
"It's a 100 percent loophole," said Mr. Feingold, who called the Hagel bill "an abomination."
While the Hagel proposal has become a rallying point for Democrats who think McCain-Feingold goes too far and the White House met with the senator this week to discuss his plan, Mr. Hagel said last night he supports Mr. Bush's principles.
"We have a lot of common ground as we begin next week's debate. The president's support of increasing disclosure requirements, increasing individual participation, maintaining strong political parties and addressing the abuses of unregulated soft money is an important message," he said.
"I believe that we will be able to pass meaningful bipartisan campaign finance reform," Mr. Hagel said.


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