Game plan to ban election 'soft money' blocked by Ky. senator

By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 10/14/99

ASHINGTON - Enemies of big money in politics have executed a textbook plan for changing the way US elections are funded. They have pushed an overhaul measure through the House, enlisted the support of a majority of senators, and secured President Clinton's vow to sign the plan into law.

But as the Senate opens debate today on transforming a campaign-finance system that has endured since the Watergate scandal, the overhaul plan faces near-certain death at the hands of an opposition movement led by a single Republican senator.

So much for going by the book.

As he has done for a decade, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell stood prepared to kill by filibuster the effort to ban unlimited and unregulated contributions known as ''soft money'' from federal elections.

In the face of McConnell's stand, several backers of the soft-money ban said the best they can hope for are incremental changes that don't further harm the election process. The debate opens as both major parties set records in raising soft money, padding the $55 million they amassed in the first six months of the year. ''I see a chance of getting something through,'' said Senator John F. Kerry. ''But I also see a chance that we could get a bill that masquerades as reform and does actual damage to the system.''

Kerry, a longtime proponent of altering the campaign-finance system, criticized a recent move to scale down the overhaul measure by removing a proposal that would ban so-called ''issue ads'' that attack candidates in the final weeks of an election. The ads are aired by special-interest groups that are not required to disclose the source of funds.

The debate is expected to last as long as five days, with senators voting on several alternative proposals, including a more comprehensive plan crafted by Representatives Martin T. Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, and Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. The House approved their measure last month, 252-177.

The showdown is rich with subplots, from the presidential campaign of the overhaul plan's chief GOP sponsor, Senator John McCain of Arizona, to a potential labor backlash against Kerry in Massachusetts.

In a sign of the high stakes of the overhaul plan, a Massachuetts union leader reacted angrily yesterday to reports from Washington lobbyists that Kerry had suggested to Democratic colleagues that softening their pro-labor stance could help overcome Republican opposition to the measure.

''I suggest to the senator that he negotiate on somebody else's back, not on ours,'' said Rich Gambino, business manager of Local 103 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. ''He has once again shown his detachment from the everyday worker.''

Kerry denied suggesting in a closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats that they consider restricting labor's ability to help fund federal elections. He noted that he has voted regularly against measures that would curb political contributions from unions.

''I'm telling you point-blank, that is not accurate,'' Kerry said of the assertions about his remarks to Senate Democrats.

Kerry said he spoke only abstractly about labor issues. ''I talked about having to address the perception that the Republicans won't give in at all unless we find some way to deal with their labor arguments,'' he said. ''I said we need to do it in a fair-minded way - but I don't support their efforts.''

Last year, Senate supporters of the overhaul measure fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to prevent McConnell's filibuster.

With Democrats remaining virtually united behind the overhaul plan, as they were last year, McCain said he has yet to sway enough GOP colleagues to stymie McConnell and a coalition of opponents ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association.

The showdown is the first major battle for Scott Harshbarger, the former Massachusetts attorney general who is now president of Common Cause. The group is leading a lobbying effort to boost the overhaul plan.

Harshbarger defended the decision to drop the ''issue ad'' provision as a reasonable effort to secure enough votes to overcome McConnell. ''This may be the way to get the support of several senators who have said they oppose soft money but have voted against the bill for other reasons,'' Harshbarger said. ''Now they are either for soft money or against it.''