As McCain returns to Senate, odds on campaign reform still long

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 3/21/2000

ASHINGTON - In the good old days of wide-open access on his Straight Talk Express bus - say, two weeks ago - Senator John McCain would talk about campaign finance and almost any other issue until reporters cried ''Enough!'' So the scene yesterday in the hallway outside McCain's Senate office seemed more curious by the minute.

Where was McCain? For hours, the vastly slimmed down press entourage, which could have fit in a few minivans instead of several buses, waited outside the Arizonan's office. But the senator who rarely tired of talking on the trail wasn't talking on his first day back in the Senate. When aides urged him to speak publicly, he rebuffed them. Finally, he spoke for three minutes.

''I have always said I will support the party and I will support the nominee of the party and I will also not abandon my reform agenda and those millions of people who are relying on me to pursue it,'' McCain said, as aides shouted ''Thank you!'' and hustled him off.

The scene outside Room 241 of the Russell Office Building underscored a cold reality. McCain reveled in campaigning against Congress and the Republican leadership, who had filibustered against his campaign finance bill. Only five of 55 Republican senators backed his White House bid. Now that McCain has lost the Republican nomination, the GOP colleagues who didn't support him, and some who did, are not rushing to embrace his proposal to ban unregulated ''soft money'' contributions to the political parties.

Even one of McCain's staunchest Senate supporters, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said yesterday he wouldn't support McCain's campaign finance proposal, which once again appears to have little chance of passage despite all the publicity about it during the primaries.

''I don't see any votes changing,'' Hagel said. ''But I don't see the issue going away.''

Indeed, the action on campaign finance could be moving to Hagel, who has proposed a compromise that would limit soft money contributions to $60,000 per year. Although some McCain allies think that proposal is so watered-down as to be meaningless, many Republicans, including Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, are seriously considering whether to support it. Hagel has been prominently mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate partly because he has strong ties to McCain but is closer to Bush's position on campaign finance.

Hagel said two of Bush's closest advisers, strategist Karl Rove and Senator Paul Coverdell, the Georgia Republican, have called to get a copy of the proposal.

''The Republicans may be trying to find some political cover,'' said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, referring to the possibility of Republicans backing the Hagel proposal.

Hagel acknowledged that some Republicans might be attracted to his plan for that reason, but he said he was convinced his proposal was a reasonable middle ground, adding that he thought McCain's proposal was unconstitutional.

With few senators in Washington, McCain spent most of his first day back making phone calls to old friends and adversaries. He talked with his party leader and sometimes-nemesis, Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and granted a lengthy television interview to CBS anchor Dan Rather, in which he reiterated that he would support his party's nominee and would ''under no circumstances'' accept a vice presidential nomination.

McCain, in his brief remarks to reporters, said he had not yet talked with Bush.

Today, McCain is expected to make an appearance on the Senate floor.

Clearly, McCain's political megaphone has been greatly amplified by his primary season successes, and McCain's allies hope he will have more clout than ever. He is expected to set up a '' Straight Talk Express'' political action committee, collecting funds to help elect candidates who want to overhaul the campaign fund system.

He could still be a pivotal player in the presidential campaign, depending on how enthusiastically he campaigns for Bush.

McCain adviser Ken Duberstein said the senator will push an agenda that's much broader than campaign finance, including Social Security reform, as early as today. Duberstein said the campaign, which provided the senator with the names of hundreds of thousands of supporters across the country, will make McCain one of the most prominent senators, comparable to the way Senator Edward Kennedy has influence far beyond Massachusetts.

Although McCain plans to address many issues, the focus still inevitably will be on his signature theme of campaign finance.

For now, McCain has all the free media publicity a senator could want, as yesterday's day-long media stakeout demonstrated. But he doesn't have the one thing he wanted most: a mandate. During the early stages of the campaign, as McCain smiled from the covers of national news magazines, the buzz was that his campaign finance reform plan might finally pass through Congress. But with McCain's eventual drubbing by Bush, the odds for passage of the proposal might have even diminished.

The bottom line is that McCain is five to seven senators short of winning that passage, exactly where matters stood when he left for the campaign trail. The measure has already passed the House, but Senate Republicans - led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - so far have successfully filibustered against it.

''There are no votes that were gained as a result of the campaign,'' said Representative Martin Meehan of Lowell, the cosponsor of a campaign finance bill much like McCain's that passed the House.

Russell Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cosponsored McCain's campaign finance bill in the Senate, was more optimistic. Feingold said in an interview that ''I've got one or two hot prospects'' who may change their votes to support the legislation, but he declined to reveal their names. But that would still leave the measure several votes short of ending a filibuster.

Feingold was aghast at the Hagel proposal, asserting that it would allow a couple to give hundreds of thousands of dollars in various contributions over a six-year Senate election cycle to a political party. ''His proposal would almost institutionalize the soft money system instead of cracking down on it,'' he said.