Sunday, October 24, 1999

McConnell saves soft money


Limits hinder speech, he says

BY PAUL BARTON
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — It's as dependable as the arrival of autumn: Campaign finance reform proposals come to the Senate floor, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky defeats them.

        “This is going to be the one (thing) that people remember him for,” said Gary Jacobson, political scientist at the University of California-San Diego. “I think his Republican colleagues are delighted he is taking all this heat for them. He seems delighted to take it.”

        Going back to at least 1994, Mr. McConnell has re ceived the lion's share of the credit for defeating campaign finance reform proposals, most of which he has portrayed as an attack on the right of free speech.

        Money, and lots of it, is needed to deliver a message in politics — and limiting spending limits what people can say, he contends.

        Mr. McConnell himself is adept at raising “soft money,”

        the large, unlimited political contributions from corporations and the wealthy that go to political parties rather than to candidates.

        As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Mr. McConnell raised $37.8 million in soft money for the 1998 elections, a record amount for either party. The NRSC tries to ensure the election of GOP candidates to Senate seats.

        For the 2000 election, he has raised $5.98 million so far, but those who track campaign dollars expect that amount to explode next year.

        “McConnell is certainly going to be pulling out all the stops,” said Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

        For the past four years, the bill that Mr. McConnell has kept from passing is McCain-Feingold, the package of reforms sought by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

        With reformers wanting to talk about how big money corrupts Congress, Mr. McConnell decided this year to challenge them.

        He made the Senate debate personal and challenged Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold to name those considered to be corrupted by soft money.

        “The question is, who is corrupted?” he asked in Senate debate. “You can't say the gang is corrupt but none of the gangsters are here.”

        Mr. McCain, a presidential candidate, responded that both political parties seek to stay in power by selling their offices to the highest bidder.

        Supporters of McCain-Feingold added that the signs of corruption are everywhere, from dollars that pour into members of major committees before key votes to the selling of overnight stays at the White House.

        But since they could only muster 53 votes, seven short of the number needed to overcome Mr. McConnell's latest filibuster, reformers again found themselves having to wait for another day.

        “It's a horrible piece of legislation and deserves to be dead,” Mr. McConnell said. To supporters of McCain-Feingold, Mr. McConnell's triumph reinforced his status as the Senate's “Darth Vader.”

        But the three-term Kentucky Republican has found support for his position from a wide range of interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

        And many conservative scholars think there is no way campaign spending limits can be squared with the Constitution.

        “This is a real profile in courage,” Todd Gaziano of the Heritage Foundation said of Mr. McConnell.

        Despite what reformers say, Mr. Gaziano said, legal opinions increasingly are on Mr. McConnell's side.

       



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