Bush Headlines GOP Fund Raiser

As Congress takes another baby step toward passing campaign finance reform, pressure is mounting on both parties to raise as much money as they can before the floodgates are closed.

And Republican donors are coming through for their party — and their president — in spades.

At its annual gala in Washington Tuesday night, the Republican National Committee hoped to to raise $22 million — perhaps more — in unlimited "soft money" contributions, renewing questions about the power of cash in politics. The actual take was $23.9 million, which party officials said was a record.

This comes as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has agreed to send a ban on such soft money to the House later this week. Soft money is given as a donation to a political party but not designated for a particular candidate.

But it's not the colossal take that's causing all the fuss. (The party raised $20.5 million at the same gala a year ago.) Instead, to the glee of Democrats — who were on the receiving end of scrutiny during years of Clinton/Gore fund-raising scandals — the spotlight is on events before and after the gala that offer big Republican donors access to government property and officials.

Cheney's House

Monday night at his residence, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney hosted an unpublicized reception for roughly 300 of the GOP's biggest donors, all of whom came to town for the gala.

Republican Party officials insisted there was nothing improper about the reception because no money was raised, and because the RNC — not taxpayers — picked up the tab for the event.

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the difference is "night and day" when compared to former President Clinton's "donor maintenance" events at the White House.

Also Tuesday night, and in the days following the gala, the Republican Senate campaign committee had planned a dinner at an embassy and a series of "briefings" with Cabinet secretaries for its big donors.

Those events have, for the most part, been canceled. The Mexican Embassy begged off on staging the dinner because it was a political event. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson ultimately declined to get involved, claiming scheduling conflicts. The committee's donors will still be treated to a speech by Commerce Secretary Don Evans.

Several weeks ago, the New York Times reported Thompson had held another briefing for some of the GOP's more generous contributors.

Again, no money was to have changed hands at these events. Nevertheless, the purpose of these events clearly was to reward the GOP's big contributors for their donations to the party. If access is not being "sold," per se, then it certainly is being given as payback.

Longtime observers of money in politics and party fund-raising activities know that these sorts of events are staples of party fund raising, and a perk of holding the White House. They may smell bad to the public, but nothing about them is illegal.

Critics Claim Hypocrisy

But Democrats and campaign reformers argue that, after bashing Bill Clinton and Al Gore during the 2000 campaign for their fund-raising activities, and pledging to "restore honor and dignity" to the White House, Bush, Cheney and the Republican Party are being hypocritical in setting about activities very similar to those pursued by the previous administration.

"I think it not only doesn't look right, it's also hypocrisy," says Scott Harshbarger, president of the citizens group Common Cause. "These are the very people who criticized the Democrats for doing it."

Democrats have also been quick to point out that President Clinton stopped attending such donor maintenance events on government property — which the vice-presidential residence surely is — in 1996, after the campaign finance scandals broke.

In the 2000 campaign, candidates Bush and Cheney criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for using the White House for receptions and sleepovers for Democratic donors.

"There's a fine line between allowing a friend to come, or inviting a friend that you've known for a long time who may be a contributor, as opposed to renting out the Lincoln Bedroom in order to raise money," Bush said on CNN during the campaign.

On Tuesday, the White House defended its actions as proper, saying the Clinton administration raised donations on a far more organized and broader scale.

"They used the White House for the ability to get more money out of people," Fleischer said. "This is just a way to say thank you."

After the gala, the president and his party will be saying thank you to some of the most powerful people in the country — for about $22 million in donations.

ABCNEWS' Elizabeth Wilner and John Martin contributed to this report.