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McCain Woos Possible Votes On Campaign Overhaul Bills

By Guy Gugliotta
and Edward Walsh
The Washington Post

If Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expects the Senate to pass a campaign finance reform bill this year, he must find decisive support from a pool of about 15 Republican colleagues on one or more critical preliminary votes next week.

When asked whether he could sway enough of these fence-sitters, McCain said Thursday, "No doubt the odds are stacked against us." Interviews with most of the potential swing senators showed that the support, at this point, simply is not there.

Preparing for the worst, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., vowed Thursday that even if the bill is stopped next week, the Democrats will offer it "as an amendment to whatever piece of legislation comes before the body."

But no matter how many times the Democrats try to force a vote, the bill will never pass unless those pivotal Republicans have a change of heart.

The key Republicans, according to Senate sources following the bill, include moderates, senators sympathetic to campaign reform, senators running for re-election next year and senators who have sought support from traditional Democratic constituencies.

The first vote, likely to come on an amendment to curb labor union spending on elections, could be a cliffhanger. All 45 Democrats will oppose the measure as a "poison pill," but McCain and four other Republicans will have to join them in order to defeat it. Even Republicans who support the reform bill so far have refused to commit themselves on this vote.

If McCain and his supporters should manage to beat the amendment, they will then have to muster 60 senators to defeat a Republican filibuster in order to bring the legislation to a vote. That means 15 Republicans will have to join the Democrats, and thus far, prospects are dim. "My own sense is that we are far short," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., one of four Republican co-sponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., succeeded in muddying the voting calculus Monday when he introduced the union amendment, a measure that virtually no Republican senator - even among those who favor the reform bill - wants to oppose.

"I find myself in a quandary," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, another co-sponsor of McCain's bill. The amendment is "good public policy," but Democrats "say it's a killer amendment," she added. "At the end of the day, I want both" the amendment and the bill.

At present this seems impossible. The amendment would forbid unions to use regular membership dues to finance political activities unless individual members specifically authorize it in advance. The reform bill has a provision that applies only to non-union members who can request a refund for the portion of their fees used by the union for political purposes.

This is a considerable difference, and for Democrats, beneficiaries of the vast majority of union political expenditures in 1996, the Lott amendment is unpalatable - "the definition of a "poison pill,' " said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., McCain's co-author. "This is an intentional effort to kill campaign finance reform."

But while Collins and others may recognize the Lott amendment's disruptive nature, McCain is the only Republican who so far has said he will vote against it. Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., another GOP co-sponsor, is undecided, and Specter, a moderate running for re-election in pro-labor Pennsylvania next year, was noncommittal.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, another moderate thought to be able to provide a decisive vote, said she will support the Lott amendment, but will try to work out a compromise before "partisan positions harden." Thursday Snowe met with Collins, Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I., and staffers for Specter and Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., to discuss a compromise, but reached no conclusions, aides said. Snowe has proposed extending the requirement for prior approval of political spending to all membership organizations "ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Sierra Club."

But interviews made clear that in a few short days the Lott amendment had its intended effect of hardening partisan positions substantially, particularly among Republicans who had been battered by union money during the last election.

"It's like a drive-by shooting," said freshman Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., of union involvement.