Senators rip McCain's soft-money claim

By Bob Hohler, Globe Staff, 10/15/99

ASHINGTON - In a surprisingly harsh attack on a Republican presidential candidate by his party colleagues, a group of GOP senators yesterday publicly accused Arizona Senator John McCain of savaging their integrity in his bid for the White House.

As the Senate opened debate on revamping the nation's political finance laws - the cornerstone of McCain's presidential campaign - several GOP members challenged McCain to prove his assertion that they are enmeshed in a fabric of corruption spun by vast special-interest money.

The rare public display of Republican infighting erupted on the Senate floor as polls showed McCain gaining momentum in the presidential race and as foes of overhauling the campaign finance system signaled new determination to foil the initiative.

Citing McCain's corruption charges, Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, excoriated ''senators who go before the American people and declare openly and with great conviction that votes are being bought in the halls of the United States Capitol. When senators make those kinds of allegations about their colleagues, I think what we're suggesting here is that they ought to back it up,'' said McConnell, the leading foe of McCain's campaign-finance initiative.

McCain did not yield, even as two other GOP senators - Robert F. Bennett of Utah and Slade Gorton of Washington - demanded he withdraw assertions on his Web site that they had pursued unauthorized congressional funds for special projects in their states as ''a direct result of the rise of soft money.''

McCain's proposal would ban soft money, the unlimited and unregulated contributions to political parties that were linked to several fund-raising crimes in the 1996 elections. The two major parties are projected to raise a total of $525 million in soft money by the 2000 election, double the amount they amassed in 1996.

''I have been accused of being corrupt, of caving in to soft money,'' Bennettt said, referring to McCain's claim that Bennett pursued $2.2 million in federal funds for the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City as a direct result of the proliferation of special-interest money in politics.

Bennett, taking ''personal offense'' at the charge, demanded on the Senate floor that McCain prove he acted corruptly or withdraw the assertion.

McCain said he cited the funds that Bennett and Gorton had obtained to highlight the ''systemic'' and ''pernicious'' influence of soft money in politics, not to impugn their integrity. But he refused to apologize or withdraw his allegations.

''I am fighting a system here,'' McCain said. ''I am trying to change the system which corrupts all of us.''

Unmollified, the McConnell team clashed with the defiant McCain for more than two hours, eventually prompting a rare scene, as Senator Paul D. Wellstone of Minnesota, a Democrat, tried to intervene in the potentially damaging GOP squabble. Addressing McConnell, Wellstone said, ''May I ask the senator, how long will he continue with the attack on Senator McCain?''

Sniping at colleagues with presidential ambitions is nothing new in the Senate, where many members harbor White House aspirations. But the targeting of McCain was McConnell's latest strategy to derail the effort to overhaul the campaign-finance system.

Citing McCain's corruption claims, McConnell said in a news conference, ''This is a new argument that has been made out on the campaign trail, and I am highly offended by the loose talk of corruption when there is no proof.''

In addition to ending soft-money donations, McCain's measure, cosponsored by Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, would require labor unions to notify dues payers who are not union members that they can request that their dues not be used for political purposes.

McCain and Feingold, trying to gain support for a measure that has failed to pass the Senate three times in recent years, removed a controversial provision that would have limited how much money independent groups can raise to influence elections and would have required the groups to disclose the sources of their money.

The Senate, by voice vote, yesterday adopted an amendment by McConnell that was clearly a jab at McCain. The provision would require senators to report any information about a colleague's corrupt actions.

Before the amendment passed, however, McCain took a final shot at McConnell, noting that McConnell told Republican senators in a closed-door meeting last year that they could take comfort in voting against a landmark proposal to regulate the tobacco industry because cigarette makers would support them with a massive advertising campaign.

McConnell, who has raised millions of dollars in soft money from the tobacco industry as chairman of the Senate GOP reelection committee, said he was ''deeply offended'' by McCain's remarks, though he did not dispute them. He said his opposition to tobacco legislation stems from his desire to protect the 45,000 tobacco growers in Kentucky.

Last night, the Senate approved, 77-20, a McCain amendment that would tighten restrictions and disclosure requirements on funds that national parties transfer to state and local political committees.

''What this fight is about is taking the $100,000 check out of American politics for good,'' McCain said. ''It's about putting the little guy back in charge and freeing our system from the corrupting power of the special interests' bottomless wallets.''

McCain and Feingold appear to remain at least seven votes short of the 60 they will need to break McConnell's expected filibuster and force a vote on the soft-money ban.

McConnell said he considers the proposed ban on soft money an assault on free speech. Also, he appeared to revel in his ability to consistently block the McCain-Feingold initiative, even chiding the sponsors for scaling down the bill. ''If it were whittled down any further,'' McConnell said, ''only the effective date would remain.''

The final showdown will come next week, after five days of Senate debate.