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Senate Debates Campaign Finance Engaging Debate Strikes Chord With Many Senators

By Janet Hook and Nick Anderson

Something remarkable is happening during the Senate’s sprawling debate on campaign finance reform. Senators are actually paying attention.

At a time of growing dependence on staff and made-for-TV speeches delivered to a mostly empty chamber, they are suddenly doing what they are supposed to do -- deliberate, write bills, try to persuade each other.

The irony is that the Senate is coming alive on a topic that, for much of the public, seems to inspire indifference, cynicism or befuddlement. But for the lawmakers themselves, few issues could be more captivating; fundraising, after all, is the sprinkler system that waters the roots of their careers.

“These are all people who have raised millions of dollars to get where they are today,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center for People and the Press. The reform debate “may not be salient for the American people, but it sure is for them.”

This self-interest was vividly demonstrated when the first two major amendments added to the reform bill would make it easier to run for re-election. One, approved Wednesday, would drive down the cost of political ads on television; the other, passed Tuesday, would make it easier to fend off millionaire challengers.

The intensity of the give-and-take on the Senate floor is a reminder of one of the biggest reasons why it is so hard to reform the campaign finance system. Every senator has a direct personal stake in the outcome.

“This is a debate ... where everybody is concerned because, of course, this could affect all of us in very profound ways in the future,” said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Campaign finance debates usually prove raucous. The last time the Senate addressed the issue, in 1999, principal reform advocate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came under attack from members of his own party -- barbs with a bitter personal edge rarely seen in the usually decorous Senate.

This year’s debate, so far, has been less emotional. But it has a new fervor because reform advocates have their best chance in years to prevail. The national following McCain gained during his presidential run last year gave the reform movement new energy, as did the election of several new senators committed to the cause.

At the same time, the vast number of amendments in the works shrouds the bill’s fate in uncertainty. There seems to be no way to know, hour to hour, let alone from day to day, what will be proposed. And each amendment added to the bill potentially scrambles the political coalition that has publicly embraced reform.

“This is improvisational theater,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). “Everything else we do here is scripted.”

The unusual involvement of senators was driven home after defeat of the first version of the amendment aimed at helping candidates who face millionaire challengers. A bipartisan group of about a dozen senators retreated to the Republican cloakroom and figured out how to rewrite the measure so it would pass. That’s the kind of spadework that is traditionally done by aides.

“The nation and the world will be peeking in through their television windows to witness this Senate debate,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb). “Will they see dignity, respect for others’ opinions, honest discourse and elevated debate? I believe so.”