Bush Vs. Mc Cain, Round Two

The two are heading for a collision on campaign-finance reform

It's no secret that soon-to-be-President George W. Bush's first-year agenda will focus heavily on education, Social Security, tax cuts, and military retooling. But folks at the Bush Ranch are beginning to worry about another cowpoke's agenda. Bush's old nemesis, Arizona GOP Senator John McCain, is drawing up a wide-ranging reform plan, which includes everything from limits on campaign contributions to advancing shareholders' rights to attacking Pentagon waste. Bush, who fancies himself a "Reformer with Results," is about to run headlong into McCain, the "Reformer with a Mission." And McCain, the former fighter pilot and perennial maverick, isn't waiting for Bush's Jan. 20 inauguration to relaunch his reform crusade.

This is one battle the incoming President surely doesn't want right now. A struggle could jeopardize his plans to seek early bipartisan victories and challenge his knack for keeping contentious issues from splitting the Republican Party. In the case of campaign-finance reform--McCain's top priority--his coalition of GOP moderates and independent-minded conservatives is arrayed against the Religious Right and economic conservatives. Reform foes argue that the proposed ban on unlimited "soft money" donations from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to the parties would violate their First Amendment rights and put conservatives at a political disadvantage. An early McCain-Bush clash "has great potential to spoil a lot of other stuff Bush hopes to accomplish," says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.

The first showdown could take place in late January, when McCain and his co-sponsor, Senator Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), hope to force a floor vote for their long-delayed campaign-finance reform measure. While the House has passed a sweeping overhaul of campaign-finance laws, Senate GOP leaders for three years have stymied McCain and Feingold. But now McCain claims to have the necessary votes to enact the legislation. Says Republican consultant Scott W. Reed: "This guy is like a dog with a bone; he's not going to let go of it until he gets some recognition."

None of this is welcome news at Bush transition headquarters. During the post-inauguration "honeymoon" period, the Texan's team wants to concentrate on a prescription-drug benefit for seniors and education reform. The goal is to build up political capital with bipartisan triumphs before taking on more controversial issues. Bush allies "don't want the focus to be on campaign reform in the first 100 days," says Randy Tate, a former Christian Coalition executive director and now a vice-president of the political Web site Voter.com.

BITTER BACKLASH? Privately, the Bush transition team is discussing possible strategies to neutralize McCain. If he decides to take on his erstwhile foe, the new President likely would push a slightly stronger version of his earlier proposal to ban unions and corporations from making unlimited contributions, while allowing wealthy individuals to continue underwriting party organizations. Bush advisers believe their approach would satisfy public demands for reform without creating a backlash from conservative groups, which remain bitterly opposed to McCain-Feingold.

If Bush opts for compromise, he would seek a delay in McCain's self-imposed timetable to allow for negotiation. Vice-President-elect Richard B. Cheney told Capitol Hill Republicans on Dec. 13 that he thought agreement was possible on a number of long-simmering issues, including campaign reform.

But consensus will be hard to reach. One idea under discussion--a limit on soft-money donations, rather than an outright ban, coupled with a significant hike in the current $1,000 cap on individual contributions--splits reformers. And Feingold says he and McCain are in no mood to deal: "This is not the time for weakening a bill that is already very modest."

Unless the new President can find a way to mollify all the factions within his party, he'll be forced to decide between the McCain reformers, a key swing voting bloc, and Christian conservatives, whom he may need to fend off any future McCain challenge. Bush's ability to handle these pressures will say a lot about the 43rd President's political smarts--or lack thereof.

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