- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001


Even if the McCain-Feingold bill makes it through Congress, the campaign finance reforms will not be signed by President Bush unless they include "paycheck protection" for union members and other provisions that Democrats consider unpalatable.

Although the White House has publicly refrained from threatening to veto the bill's restrictions on campaign fund-raising, the administration remains deeply skeptical of what many conservatives consider an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech.

It doesn't help that the bill's driving force is Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who challenged Mr. Bush in last year's presidential primaries.

By pre-emptively issuing his own statement of a half-dozen principles that must be included in any campaign finance reform bill, Mr. Bush appears to be trying to inoculate himself against charges that he is "anti-reform."

"He's trying to co-opt a little bit of the high ground that McCain, Feingold et al. have had for years now," said Brooklyn law professor Joel Gora, who opposes McCain-Feingold on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They made it look like anybody who has the slightest disagreement with them is the devil himself.

"And now I think it's really important for someone who commands the visibility of the president to put out at least some different ideas," he added. "Then, when his opponents claim that he's not for reform, Bush can absorb the heat by saying, 'These are the reforms I'm interested in, but they weren't included in the bill. So I'm not going to sign it.' "

Some Republicans are quietly hoping McCain-Feingold never makes it to the White House, sparing Mr. Bush the dilemma of whether to sign it.

The new president has emphasized he wants to spend his political capital on a few carefully selected priorities, and campaign finance reform does not appear to be at the top of that list.

When Mr. McCain met with the president shortly after inauguration, he was said to be surprised to find Vice President Richard B. Cheney sitting in on what the senator thought would be a one-on-one meeting.

While the president told Mr. McCain he had an open mind about campaign finance reform, Mr. Cheney played the role of "bad cop" by making his reservations plain.

"The subject came up of my views on campaign finance reform," Mr. Cheney told The Washington Times earlier this month. "It's no secret my views have been that I've been more concerned in the past about unwise limitations on political activity imposed by the government.

"It's always been a pet peeve of mine," he added. "I believe in total disclosure, but I also am very cautious about trying to impose limits on the political process.

"Our view, the president's view and the administration policy is that he's prepared to support a bill if it's got provisions in it that are fair and equitable paycheck protection, things like that."

But as Senate debate got under way yesterday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, predicted the AFL-CIO would make sure there was no "paycheck protection" component to any bill that escaped Congress.

The White House is not the only institution that could snuff out McCain-Feingold. On Capitol Hill, conservative Republicans believe it would limit free speech, while liberal Democrats fret it could put them at a fund-raising disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the public has shown little interest in the issue, according to numerous polls, and federal courts have taken a dim view of many of the fund-raising limitations contemplated by McCain-Feingold.

With so many forces arrayed against the legislation, Mr. Bush has been able to strike a centrist position of embracing the concept of campaign finance reform while opposing a variety of individual limitations. Chief among these is "paycheck protection," the insistence that unions obtain permission from their members before spending dues on politics.

The president has managed to mute any charges of anti-labor bias by also calling for "shareholder protection," which would require corporations to obtain consent from shareholders before making political contributions.

Mr. McCain has called this a good idea, though nearly impossible to enact.

Even opponents of campaign finance reform have credited Mr. Bush for joining the debate with proposals of his own.

"This is the first time a president has taken a different point of view, and one that is balanced toward free speech," Mr. Gora said. "The last president just said he supported McCain-Feingold and then went about doing whatever he had to do to raise as much money as he could."

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