Will Washington Be Dragged Into Campaign Reform?

Pols may be trapped into backing it by their own rhetoric

In early September, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich convened a powwow with Republican National Committee officials. They were worried about the growing clamor for revamping the nation's corruption-plagued system for campaign financing. What should they do? The conclusion: Serious reform could weaken GOP prospects in the 1998 elections. End of discussion. "They agreed there would be no reform," says a source close to the talks.

Days later, Lott, a withering critic of campaign-finance legislation, startled his colleagues with an impromptu version of the Mississippi two-step. On Sept. 18, with pressure building within Republican ranks for action on a bipartisan campaign-reform bill and with millions of Americans watching oilman Roger Tamraz tell a Senate hearing matter-of-factly how he bought access to the President with a $300,000 donation, Lott changed course. He announced his willingness to schedule floor debate on campaign-finance reform.

YEARS STILL REQUIRED. The following week, with more revelations spilling from the Donorgate committee hearings and new reports of possible White House violations of fund-raising rules, President Clinton showed Lott a new step. On Sept. 23, Clinton, who has been calling for reform even as he continues to rake in millions at party fund-raisers, put campaign-finance reform back on Congress' agenda. He vowed to keep Congress in session until GOP leaders permit a vote on a bipartisan reform bill. Within hours, a unanimous Senate cleared the way for action as early as October.

Has the moment finally arrived to reform money politics in Washington? Like balancing the budget, a meaningful campaign-finance overhaul may still require years of pushing to overcome self-interest and inertia. But even now, the drive to reform money politics has taken on a momentum that legislators can't ignore. For the first time in years, there seems to be an opportunity to remove some of the most glaring abuses, such as unrestricted "soft money" given by wealthy donors. "I've sensed a sea change on this thing," says freshman Senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.).

Until late September it looked like Washington could continue to talk about reform--and keep raising money as usual. But now Attorney General Janet Reno is considering independent counsels to look into White House fund-raising calls by both President Clinton and Vice-President Gore. And in pleading guilty to conspiracy and fraud charges, aides to Teamsters President Ron Carey have implicated the union and the AFL-CIO in questionable Democratic fund-raising schemes.

The Donorgate hearings headed by Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), widely ignored all summer, also sprang to life in September. Tamraz and others laid bare a system of cash-for-access that has become routine in Washington. Business consultant R. Warren Meddoff testified that he passed Clinton a business card promising millions in campaign donations--and got a quick call back from a top White House staffer.

FALLBACK STRATEGIES. The continuous revelations have helped turn the tide toward considering a bipartisan reform bill this term. Still, the chance for the reforms proposed by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) to be enacted at once are slim. Top Republicans and Democrats don't want to gut a system that works well for incumbents. They adamantly oppose McCain-Feingold's key provisions, particularly its ban on soft dollars. "Despite what you may see on the surface, none of the leaders in the House, Senate, or White House actually want this to happen," says a Hill veteran.

Forced to face the new reality, however, all sides are drawing up fallback strategies. Skeptical Republicans are hoping to torpedo the McCain-Feingold reform plan by attaching "killer amendments" that curb the ability of unions, which overwhelmingly favor Democrats, to use dues money for political causes. If enough Democrats defect, the GOP will blame them for reform's demise.

But not if the White House can help it. Stung by criticism that Clinton isn't serious about a fund-raising overhaul, the President's strategists decided Sept. 22 to challenge Congress to clean up the system--or spend Christmas at the Capitol. "The Republicans will either pass meaningful campaign-finance reform or wish they had," says Presidential counselor Paul E. Begala.

What's more, the White House sees a winning campaign issue for Democrats in 1998. If reform passes, Clinton will give Democrats credit for prodding Republicans. If it fails, Democrats can blame the GOP for killing a bill that many of them are only pretending to support.

For a bill to pass, McCain concedes, it will take substantial compromise. "The only way we are going to get meaningful reform is sitting down in a bipartisan fashion," he says. Details of a possible deal are sketchy. But leadership sources say it could include caps on soft-money contributions (perhaps at $20,000), regulation of issue-advocacy campaigns used by business and labor, and stricter campaign disclosure rules. McCain-Feingold backers say opponents underestimate the momentum for change. Perhaps. For now, the momentum is in favor of change. And that's a start.