Scaled-down measure keeps campaign finance reform alive

By Art Pine Los Angeles Times, 3/20/2000

ASHINGTON - Senator John McCain's presidential candidacy might have fizzled, but his big issue -- campaign finance reform -- has gained new momentum in Congress, albeit in diluted form.

A compromise measure drafted by Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is scheduled for a committee hearing Wednesday amid signs that it is picking up support that eluded McCain's efforts. Senate floor action could come as early as mid-May.

The Arizona senator is due to return to the Senate this week, the Associated Press reported yesterday, and his aides are planning his return to public life in Washington with care.

He will meet with political advisers today to review plans for a political action committee that would enable him to raise money to finance his travels around the country on behalf of his ''reform'' agenda as well as for other candidates for office.

He may speak on the Senate floor tomorrow, possibly on a reform issue. But no attempt will be made to flesh out his plans for the coming months ''on his second day back in Washington after a long campaign and a short vacation,'' said spokesman Todd Harris.

Hagel offered his campaign finance reform proposal last November after the Senate rejected a more sweeping measure sought by McCain and his cosponsor, Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, but the initial reaction was lukewarm.

The new interest in Hagel's proposal, Senate strategists said, reflects a recognition among some GOP leaders that McCain's showing in recent primaries put pressure on the party to support some form of campaign finance reform.

''Overall, the environment is going to be one where [Senate Republicans] are going to want to be behind something,'' one strategist said. Hagel's bill, the strategist added, ''may be seen as doable. If so, it will have a pretty good chance.''

McCain emerged as Texas Governor George W. Bush's major challenger for the GOP presidential nomination, in part because of a campaign message that spotlighted campaign finance reform. His relentless attacks on what he called Washington's ''iron triangle'' of money, lobbyists, and legislation helped him attract backing before Bush overwhelmed him in a series of primaries earlier this month.

After McCain's departure from the race, Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore embraced campaign finance reform as a top priority - another possible spur for Republicans to back Hagel's bill and steal some of the vice president's campaign thunder.

By any measure, the Hagel bill is not nearly as tough as the McCain-Feingold proposal. The cornerstone of McCain's bill was its ban on ''soft money'' donations - the largely unregulated contributions to political parties that often swell to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Hagel's bill would limit these donations to a cumulative $60,000 from each individual, corporation, or labor union. In 1998 - the last full year for which such statistics are available - some 133 persons gave $60,000 or more in soft-money contributions.

The Hagel measure would also toughen requirements for national parties to disclose the names of donors promptly - and for television and radio stations to make public the names of those buying air time. But the regulations would not be as stiff as those McCain sought.

Nevertheless, some McCain backers agreed that, if the Hagel bill should become law, it would mark a step toward the kind of toughening of campaign finance laws that they want to see.

Hagel and his allies conceded the outlook is still uncertain. Although Senate Rules Committee chairman Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, endorsed the Nebraskan's bill last fall, it would not take many amendments toughening it to make him an opponent.

Democrats could also knock Hagel's proposal off track by trying to make the bill a vehicle for floor amendments designed to promote the Democratic political agenda - on education, gun control, and other controversial issues. Republicans would then probably close ranks against the bill.

''The biggest danger is that this will be criticized to death from all sides,'' said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. ''Democrats won't like it because they'll say it does not go far enough. Republican traditionalists will think it goes too far. The rest will be lukewarm.''