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Senate GOP Leaders Give Finance Reform Proposal Rude Reception

By Art Pine

The Senate began consideration of a revised campaign finance reform bill Thursday, amid expectations that the legislation again will go down in defeat -- even though the House passed a tougher measure last month.

Floor debate quickly turned sour as conservative Republicans, who oppose the bill, launched an all-out attack on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- a sponsor of the measure and a GOP presidential candidate -- for contending that the current finance system makes politicians corrupt.

Seizing on examples that McCain cited on his Internet Web site, several GOP senators demanded that he show how obtaining funds for federal programs -- or pork-barrel spending for their states -- amounts to corruption, no matter who contributed to their campaigns.

“The issue is where is the corruption?” asked Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate’s foremost foe of campaign finance legislation.

McCain and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., have pared their often-debated proposal to delete a key provision disliked by many Republicans that would have restricted the use of “issue-advocacy” ads, which now escape any regulation.

They also have openly invited all senators to propose amendments. Their hope is to build a big-enough coalition of senators who have a stake in the bill to muster the 60-vote majority they would need to block an expected filibuster by conservatives.

But proponents conceded that they face an uphill fight. McCain and Feingold clearly are looking toward the longer-term. If they don’t succeed now, they hope at least to chip away at the opposition in preparation for another try in 2000 or 2001.

In the bid to win more votes, the core of the revised McCain-Feingold bill is a provision that would ban the use of “soft money” -- the largely unregulated contributions by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to political parties. In recent years the parties have amassed tens of millions of dollars in such contributions.

Proponents of campaign finance reform had hoped that prospects for the McCain-Feingold bill would be boosted after the House passed the tougher bill last month on a 252-177 vote, with a sizable number of House Republicans bucking their leadership to support it.

But in the Senate, conservatives are preparing a spate of “poison-pill” amendments -- such as a sharper tightening of restrictions on campaign spending by labor unions -- that are expected to win the approval of most Republicans but might prompt Democrats to abandon the legislation.

McConnell, who led the filibuster that killed the bill in 1998, has threatened a similar tactic. The Kentucky lawmaker heads the Senate committee that parcels out the party’s campaign contributions to GOP senatorial candidates.

The sponsors’ invitation to other senators to propose amendments of their own so far has yielded only a tepid response.

One amendment would increase existing ceilings on contributions to candidates. The proposal, by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would triple the current $1,000-per-donation limit on direct contributions to federal candidates and later automatically adjust them for inflation.