Hard talk on soft money is far from finished

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, December 2, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

In this past election cycle, the Republican and Democratic parties raised almost $410 million in "soft money" contributions — the six-figure gifts from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that have become the favorite device for evading the strictures of campaign finance law. What are the chances that in the next campaign that number will be zero?

Talking last week to Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold, the co-sponsors of the legislation that would ban soft money, I found them exuding confidence that the new Senate makeup will let them break the Republican filibuster that has stymied their bill up to this point.

Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, said that, at worst, they are just one vote short of the 60 needed to impose cloture — or end debate — on the bill. McCain, the Arizonan who campaigned for the Republican presidential nomination on cleaning up the campaign finance system, was, if anything, even more optimistic.

But there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has captained the opposition forces, told me that it is "premature to conclude in late November what the attitude will be in February," when McCain and Feingold hope to force a vote on their measure.

With the help of a veto from then-President Bush, McConnell pointed out, "we stopped this in 1992 when we had only 44 Republican senators." By dint of a filibuster, "we stopped it in 1999 when we had 55." With the new Senate looking like a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats, McConnell knows he has his work cut out for him.

So, however, do McCain and Feingold. Since the last Senate vote on their bill in 1999, seven Republicans who sided with McConnell have been defeated, retired or died. In every case, their successors in the new Senate have indicated their support for McCain-Feingold. On the other side, only two Democratic supporters — Charles Robb of Virginia and Richard Bryan of Nevada — are being succeeded by Republicans likely to oppose the measure.

When the last roll call occurred, on Oct. 20, 1999, the closest the sponsors came to breaking the filibuster was a margin of seven votes. But slightly different versions of their bill attracted slightly different groups of Republican supporters, so 55 different senators voted one time or the other against McConnell’s filibuster.

Feingold now counts 59 sure votes to break the filibuster and says he has talked with "four or five swing Republicans" he considers likely to furnish the 60th vote. McCain gave me the names of two previously opposed Republican colleagues he claims are ready to come to his aid, and said several other senators "who face tough re-election battles in 2002" are nervous about being spotlighted as enemies of the bill.

"One of the questions in my mind," McCain said, "is whether the Democrats will stay solid." In the last Congress, every single Democrat voted for McCain-Feingold, even though some of them had serious reservations about the efficacy of the bill. Some of those Democrats agree privately with McConnell’s contention that if the parties are denied soft money contributions, interest groups of all kinds will simply step up their unregulated "issues ads" and become even more influential in our politics. But those Democrats were persuaded it was good politics to let the Republicans take the blame for killing the bill — and were confident that they would do just that.

If they think that this time it could pass, they might get cold feet. The Federal Election Commission report that showed soft money contributions through Oct. 18 jumping 40 percent over the comparable period in the 1996 election to that $410 million total also showed that Democrats are now more dependent on soft money than the GOP. Soft money represented 53 percent of the Democrats’ receipts, compared with 42 percent for the Republicans.

But the real question is what George W. Bush would do — if he is president and if the bill, which already has passed the House several times, were to get through the Senate and come to his desk.

Al Gore has pledged to press for, and sign, McCain-Feingold. In the campaign, Bush endorsed a ban on soft money from unions and corporations, but not individuals, and he tied it to a requirement that unions receive annual permission from members for use of their dues in politics — a combination that Democrats won’t accept.

McCain told me he has talked to Bush about the issue since Election Day and they have agreed only to talk some more. So it is far from a sure thing that soft money will be gone any time soon.

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