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McCain, Feingold rally supporters before campaign finance debate

Sen. Russ Feingold, left, and Sen. John McCain at a news conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday  

In this story:

McCain's core issue

McCain: 'Corruption will continue'

Bush says he is ready for compromise


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate supporters of a campaign finance overhaul bill hit the road Friday to seek public support in advance of what is likely to be a long floor battle over the proposal.

John McCain, R-Arizona, the central figure behind the bill, held a town hall-style meeting in Annapolis, Maryland Friday with his longtime campaign finance collaborator, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

The two sought to get expand their message that the current elections system, which allows individuals, corporations and political action committees to donate millions of dollars yearly to the Republican and Democratic parties, corrupts the American precept of "one person, one vote."

McCain spoke with CNN about the issue

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CNN's Major Garrett says the White House fears the fight over campaign finance reform will be distracting

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CNN's Jonathan Karl says the fight over soft money is making foes out of friends

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The arguments they delivered before a friendly crowd at Annapolis' St. John's College primed both men for Monday's debate opener on the floor of the upper chamber.

The challenge, McCain said, is to energize a base of young people who feel their government does not represent their interests.

"What I am doing, and what Russ is doing -- we're doing this for the next generation of Americans," McCain told the St. John's crowd. "We're probably safe in our seats, because we're incumbents, and we benefit from the current system."

McCain's core issue

McCain's push for the White House was centered on his maverick reformist agenda, which was built around the campaign finance reform legislation that he has long tried to push through the Senate.

The bill has come close to floor consideration on a number of occasions, but has been turned back by procedural votes blocking its debate.

The bill, which McCain and Feingold have steadily tinkered with in an effort to build more support among lawmakers, would ban "soft money," or the unregulated donations to the major political parties that are used for so-called party building activities.

That money, McCain has argued, is often given by very well-to-do individuals or powerful corporations, and is then used by the parties in creative ways for individual elections.

The legislation would also restrict issue advocacy advertisements, which are presented as pleas to voters from groups concerned about an issue but often promote a candidate's election effort.

Senate opponents, most notably Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, argue that the McCain-Feingold legislation amounts to a direct violation of constitutionally guaranteed free speech.

A similar bill on the House side of the Capitol Building has met with more success, and has been approved in each of the past two congressional sessions.

Next week's debate marks the first time the measure will be debated openly on the Senate floor and subjected to a lengthy list of amendments. The process could take as long as two weeks.

And President Bush, McCain's bitter rival through last year's early GOP primaries, has now weighed in on the issue with a position paper sent to Congress this week that hints at possible compromise.

McCain: 'Corruption will continue'

McCain, in a lengthy interview with CNN aired Thursday evening, said responses to his bill, including Bush's, were "coming out of the woodwork" now that the legislation is going to be subjected to a high-profile public debate.

"You've got to understand two fundamentals here," McCain said. "We are asking incumbents to vote to change the system that keeps incumbents in office. The present system is an incumbent-protection system, because most of the money goes to incumbents.

"That's why you only had about 20 contested House seats in the last election, and seven or eight contested Senate seats," McCain said.

Should some form of reform not be enacted this year, McCain told CNN's Judy Woodruff, the well-heeled, corporations and lobbyists will continue to exert a disproportionately large degree of influence in Washington, freezing the common man out of the process.

"If we fail, we'll be back at it," he said. "Because there will be more scandals. There'll be more scandals in American politics because of this money, which makes good people do bad things."

"if we lose, we'll accept the verdict, but we won't give up the fight," McCain said Friday.

"We believe we can beat back (many of the) amendments," McCain said, adding that even if his bill somehow becomes law, he and Feingold will return to call for improvements.

"Don't underestimate the competition," he said, pointing out that "smart people" found loopholes to the last sweeping reform of election laws, which followed the Watergate scandal.

"Russ and I will continue working on these issues, even this one, to make it better," he said.

Bush says he is ready for compromise

Bush, pressured by McCain during the election, promoted his own version of campaign-finance overhaul that would ban corporate soft money donations but allow those from individuals. Bush also has called for provisions that would strictly regulate labor unions' use of dues money paid by members for political activities.

Unions traditionally support Democratic candidates for national office, and Republicans have long argued that many rank-and-file members of labor organizations may not be similarly inclined.

"I think we ought to get rid of labor union and corporate soft money," Bush shouted to reporters Thursday when he stepped out of the White House.

Bush sent a letter to the Senate on Thursday laying out his campaign-finance priorities. White House officials said Bush was positioning himself for a compromise.

McCain, answering a question at Friday's town hall meeting, said he supported "paycheck protection" in principle, but that he would vote against it if it came up during the amendment process, because he fears it could endanger the long-range prospects for his bill.

"I don't think it is a necessary element when what we're talking about is campaign finance reform," he said. "And I think it will kill the bill."

Also positioned for a possible compromise is Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a supporter of McCain's through the election. Hagel, in concert with Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu, has produced a bill that would limit soft money donations, but not eliminate them.

McCain said Thursday that soft money donations had to be eliminated, and Hagel's limits were still incredibly generous, allowing individuals to make contributions of $120,000, and married couples $240,000.

He predicted that Hagel's bill would not be strong enough to siphon support from his own legislation, but he spoke highly of Hagel and bill, saying it contained some workable elements.

Privately, however, aides to McCain feared that the Hagel bill was designed to torpedo the entire campaign finance debate.

Campaign finance reform groups allege violations by Ashcroft
March 9, 2001
McCain launches campaign finance reform town hall tour
January 29, 2001
McCain, Lott agree 'in principle' on campaign finance reform schedule
January 26, 2001
Jonathan Karl: McCain presses on with campaign-finance reform - January 23, 2001
January 23, 2001
McCain says Senate is trying to bury campaign finance reform bill
January 22, 2001

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
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