- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

If money is the mother's milk of politics, as everyone in Washington says it is, you might think John McCain and Russ Feingold would be a little nicer to Mom.

The Senate, reluctant as ever to pop a sweat, took up debate yesterday on the celebrated campaign-finance bill that would do more than fundamentally change the way the nation pays for federal elections. John McCain and Russ Feingold would determine who gets to speak up during election campaigns, and it might be me but it wouldn't be you.

The only people left standing in the wake of McCain-Feingold would be the well-upholstered candidates, ambitious plutocrats and pundits with a cable-TV slot or who buy ink by the barrel. We'll tell you what you need to know about the candidates and the issues. All you'll have to do is sit down and shut up. Why do you think the princelings of the media are so in love with John McCain?

Mr. McCain, opening the debate, urged his colleagues to "take a risk for our country." He might have been (but wasn't) talking about the risks to the Constitution, particularly that amendment that everybody pretends to love (but often gets in the way of those who know what's best for the rest of us). Then the senator tried a little flattery. "I think the good men and women I am privileged to serve with are perfectly capable of surprising a skeptical public, and maybe ourselves, by taking on this challenge to the honor of the profession." (Profession?)

Earlier, leading a tail of pliable reporters and photographers, the two senators marched to the Republican and Democratic headquarters to proclaim that it was time to liberate the pols from the "tyranny" of the money politics that bought them to power.

Mr. McCain insists he sees a "60 percent chance" of passage, but he doesn't say it with the demeanor of a man with such encouraging odds on his side. Mr. Feingold conceded that it would not be easy to keep his Democratic colleagues in line now that they'll have to cast an authentic up-or-down vote for the first time. "When you take $500 million out of the system," he said, "every senator is going to at least blink."

The senators feel so oppressed by the demands of work and worry nobody has suffered like they have since Georgia abolished the chain gang that Mr. Feingold thinks some of them will be tempted to break their chains. Even now he can hear the faint refrain of the battle cry of freedom. Every member of Congress, he said, is "pushed and shoved" by party leaders to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the party. "It's time to end the tyranny of having to raise this money."

One man who can't wait for the serious food fight to begin he's holding his biscuits in reserve for the moment is Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has held the fort almost alone while McCain fever raged unabated in the back of the press bus (and on front pages and in the high-decibel sound bites). He predicts "fascinating" floor action.

The hero may turn out to be Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, who, like his good friend John McCain, is also a hero of the Vietnam War. His substitute legislation, backed by the White House, would limit but not prohibit free speech by limiting but not prohibiting campaign contributions.

The Hagel version would limit to $120,000 donations to political parties over a two-year election cycle, and increase the limits on contributions by individuals to federal, state and local candidates. He takes pains to insist that he drew up his plan to protect the Constitution, not to help President Bush at the expense of his friend John McCain. "The Shakespearean drama and intrigue of me somehow being the point of the spear being used by George Bush to get to John McCain is just a complete fabrication," he says.

Mr. Hagel's nod to constitutional nicety has softened Democratic enthusiasm for McCain-Feingold, but nothing has softened this enthusiasm quite like the final figures, just in, for who gave what to whom for the 2000 campaigns. Republicans took in $244 million, and that's a lot, but the Democrats now find they took in $243 million. Messrs. McCain and Feingold, the Democrats have discovered, have quit preachin' and gone to meddlin'.

By insisting that big labor, as well as big business, be cut out of the game President Bush has driven a stake through the heart of McCain-Feingold, even if, as is likely, the Supreme Court will nail the coffin lid down tight. Over the past six months, 10 U.S. district and appellate courts have struck down attempts to chip and whittle at the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech even the free speech that gives the chattering class severe heartburn.

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