- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

Senators expressed growing frustration yesterday that the two-week debate over campaign-finance regulations is diverting them from more important work on tax relief and the budget as markets plunge and the economy slumps.
"I wouldn't dedicate two weeks to it," said Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican. "It's a grandstand play on this issue. There's other things [to work on] there's energy, there's taxes, there's budget."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged another 97 points yesterday to its lowest level in more than two years, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott urged his colleagues to speed up work on tax relief to boost the economy.
But a tax-cut bill in the Senate is still in the discussion stage. And on the Senate floor, the debate over campaign finance drags on, day after day, amendment after amendment, because Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona threatened the leadership that he would block other business unless he got his way.
"We didn't want him throwing bombs the rest of the year," said a Senate Republican staffer. "This way he can't say it wasn't fair, and we get it over with."
So the Senate enters its fifth full day of debate today on an issue that, as opinion surveys consistently report, ranks low among public concerns.
"The polls show people don't care at all about campaign finance," said Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, striding rapidly on his way to a meeting he considered more important.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, conceded yesterday to being "a bit frustrated" at spending so much time on the issue.
"I do believe it is not high on the priority of the voters," Mr. Sessions said. "They're not raising it with me. It's 'inside baseball.' "
In a brief interview yesterday, Mr. McCain rejected the findings of polls that rank campaign finance near the bottom of voters' priorities.
"Just ask John Zogby, the most reliable pollster in America, who's neither Republican nor Democrat," Mr. McCain said. "And, very much like The Washington Times, he has no bias whatsoever."
But contacted yesterday, Mr. Zogby said his findings don't support Mr. McCain's argument that people care about campaign finance.
"It doesn't show up high, because people don't believe they'll get [reform]," Mr. Zogby said. "They agree something should be done, but they're also highly skeptical."
Mr. McCain said his legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat is needed because, "People believe we won't clean up our act."
Some Republicans also are chafing at the prospect of sending a high-profile bill to President Bush that he is likely to veto so early in his term.
"I think that's unfortunate," Mr. Sessions said. "I wish we weren't doing that. We ought not to send up a bill that's unconstitutional and he may be forced to veto."
Republicans argue that a provision requiring disclosure of campaign donors in certain campaign advertisements has already been struck down by courts.
Mr. Bush also has suggested he would veto a bill that does not include "paycheck protection," which would require unions to get permission from members before using their dues for political purposes. The Senate defeated such an amendment on Wednesday.
Many Democrats take a different view of the debate. Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, said lawmakers ought to be able to consider issues that are not "at the top of the current list of public concerns."
"We shouldn't have to wait until a crisis gets everybody's attention," Mr. Graham said. "I think we're performing at our best when we're dealing with an issue before it becomes a hot-button issue.
"The public understands the fundamental role that the out-of-control campaign-finance system we have today is playing in everything from patients' bill of rights to the tax bill," he added.
Mr. McCain campaigned for the Republican Party's presidential nomination last year almost exclusively on his promise to enact a ban on "soft money" campaign donations. In the last two-year election cycle, Republicans and Democrats raised a combined total of about $500 million in soft-money donations.
After he lost the primary to Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain said he would continue to pursue his "reform agenda" as a pledge to his supporters.
In a Senate now divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, he secured an agreement from Mr. Lott, Mississippi Republican, early in this session to hold two weeks of debate on campaign finance with a vote this month.
Now that the debate has reached the halfway point, several senators said they are resigned to grinding out the rest of the debate simply because it's a hurdle that must be cleared.
"Why? Because John McCain threatened to hold up everything else if he didn't get it," said Mr. Craig.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, said: "We're being held hostage. It's the only way to get on to the important things, like tax relief. So I expect we'll labor mightily for two weeks and perhaps come out with a 'mouse' that may be ruled unconstitutional."
But even Mr. McCain's strongest foes on the issue say the two-week debate proves that he is an undeniable force in the Senate.
"Senator McCain deserves the credit for forcing this onto the agenda," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who is leading the opposition to McCain-Feingold. "He was very assertive. It's not my choice to be dealing with this issue. I'd rather be dealing with the energy crisis, the economy. But we're halfway through it."

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