- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

NEWS ANALYSIS

The Senate's campaign finance debate is ostensibly about banning unlimited, unregulated contributions to the parties, but the real behind-the-scenes fight is about who will emerge with the stronger fund-raising advantage.
As the Senate debate over the McCain-Feingold bill entered its final days, there was no clear sign as to who that would be, while officials in both parties especially Democrats admitted they were nervous about the impact the bill could have on their party's future finances.
"Clearly in the past few years, the Democrats have closed the funding gap with the Republicans and this poses a direct threat to that," a Democratic Party campaign official said yesterday.
Making the Senate's two-week investment in the issue even more perplexing is the fact that polls have showed little if any public interest in campaign finance reform.
Republicans, who have fought the bill largely on its ban of unregulated "soft-money" donations and its other restrictions, were getting little, if any, help from President Bush, who has said he hopes to sign a campaign finance reform bill.
"They are negotiating from a position of weakness as long as the president gives the signal that he wants to sign a bill," said Jan Baran, a campaign finance lawyer who advises the Republicans.
At best, the GOP hoped to modify the bill's ban on "soft money," or at least offset it by tripling or doubling the individual $1,000 "hard-money" ceiling the one area where the GOP has a huge fund-raising advantage over the Democrats.
"Republicans historically have raised more hard dollars than the Democrats, so Republicans can continue to be upbeat about their ability to outraise the Democrats for 2002," said Republican campaign adviser Scott Reed.
However, the Democrats, backed by a few Republican allies, appeared to have the votes this week to pass a bill close to what Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, have proposed.
But in the ensuing legislative trade-offs, which resembled a chess match played simultaneously on many different political levels, there was as yet no indication which party would actually benefit from the campaign finance law changes.
"This is one of those Rube Goldberg-like legislative processes. If you do certain things, then some lawmakers fall off the bill. Or if you do other things, then others fall off the bill. It's a complicated scenario," said Stuart Rothenberg, a congressional campaign analyst.
Many Republicans were still scratching their heads, asking themselves how they got into this legislative box in which they were considering a bill that could hurt their party's fund-raising ability.
The answer is last year's elections, which shrunk the GOP's Senate majority to 50 votes (plus Vice President Richard B. Cheney's tie-breaking vote) and left the Republicans unable to block major legislation in committee.
With a majority in the Senate backing his bill most of the Democrats plus a few Republicans Mr. McCain demanded that it be put on the legislative schedule early.
In the past, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and archfoe of the McCain-Feingold bill, was able to kill it with a filibuster. But, as a result of last year's GOP losses, he no longer has the votes to do that.
Strategists on both sides of the aisle said yesterday that the law of unintended consequences left the ultimate impact of the bill up in the air.
Some said that advocacy groups and soft-money contributors will find other ways to help the parties and candidates of their choice. Others said that the Republicans, whose campaign committees raked in $450 million last year in hard money, would be able to raise even more in the future.
"I've talked to campaign consultants who say that the soft money will still go somewhere, that we'll still be able to run our [advocacy] ad campaigns," Mr. Rothenberg said.
"Water seeks its own level and participants in the political process do the same. If the parties are going to be barred from accepting soft contributions, then people will find other entities and ways to do that," said Ed Gillespie, a former adviser in Mr. Bush's campaign.
While Senate Democratic leaders continued to stick with the McCain-Feingold bill, strategists in the party's three campaign committees feared that they, once robbed of their soft-money advantage, would not be able to match the GOP's hard-money prowess.
"What some folks in both parties may not be considering is that if this legislation becomes law, it will without a doubt have a very real impact on how each of the political parties function. And that may not necessarily have an altogether positive impact on elections," said a key Democratic campaign official.
But Mr. Baran worried that even without its soft-money donors, the Democrats will be able to offset much of their losses with the help of campaign ground forces among the AFL-CIO's unions.
"Democrats have labor to pick up a significant portion of that soft money. They are going to use whatever other additional resources labor unions have to attack Republicans," he said.
AFL-CIO President "John Sweeney admitted that he put at least $42 million in the last election and people believe that was just the tip of the iceberg," he said.


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