— The stage is set for a showdown on Capitol Hill as President Bush and former rival Sen. John McCain push competing plans to overhaul the nation's campaign finance laws.
The Senate is set to kick off debate Monday on McCain’s signature proposal to outlaw "soft money" — the large, unregulated donations to political parties by wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and other special interest groups.
"We are threatening them," McCain, R-Ariz., told supporters today at a town hall meeting at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Md. "Every organization that buys influence with money is now working against us."
Bush, who bested the senator in last year’s race for the Republican presidential nomination, opposes McCain's plan and is urging the Senate to approve a less stringent measure that would allow individuals to continue making the controversial contributions.
“President Bush believes democracy is first and foremost about the rights of individuals to express their views,” said a White House statement delivered Thursday to Senate leaders.
When the 2000 elections left the Senate evenly divided between Democrats, who have long backed a ban on soft money, and Republicans, who have largely opposed one, the bipartisan bill authored by McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold appeared to be poised for passage.
"Our soft money ban stops the union, stops the corporation, stops the individual, stops the aptly named Ms. Rich," McCain boasted this afternoon, referring to Denise Rich, the ex-wife of pardoned fugitive Marc Rich, who gave more than $1.2 million to Democratic Party causes.
But the legislation’s prospects for approval by the Senate are now very much in doubt, with Democratic support beginning to peel away and a rival proposal picking up steam.
Political Trojan Horse?
Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana this week became the Senate’s first Democrat to signal his opposition to McCain-Feingold, and Nebraska Republican John Hagel — a onetime McCain ally — offered a reform bill that critics charge is an administration-backed “Trojan horse” aimed at sinking McCain’s proposal.
“I think the White House would love to see ‘Hagel’ pass so they could defeat the McCain-Feingold bill and, ultimately, not really change the system at all,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters on Capitol Hill today. “The Hagel bill is a Trojan horse.”
Unlike the stringent restrictions called for by McCain and Feingold, Hagel’s proposal would cap soft money contributions at $120,000. Bush is calling for a ban on soft money contributions from corporations and labor unions, but not individuals, as well as “full and prompt disclosure” of all political donations.
The president’s plan also includes a so-called “paycheck protection” clause that would require unions to get permission from members before spending their dues on political donations of any kind.
"[President Bush] supports campaign finance reform, but believes that that reform must be fair and balanced," White House deputy press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters at the White House today. "Otherwise, you won't have a level playing field across the board."
But Democrats, who rake in the vast majority of contributions from organized labor, strongly oppose the measure.
Nonpartisan public interest groups that support an across-the-board soft money ban dismissed both the Bush and Hagel proposals out of hand.
"The Bush plan would let Denise Rich give as much soft money to the parties as she wanted," said Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger.
"The Hagel bill is a loophole-ridden piece of Swiss cheese that would make soft money a permanent force in American politics," he added.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Republican National Committee raised $244,440,154 in soft money during the 2000 election cycle, while the Democratic National Committee brought in $243,124,802.