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Jonathan Karl: McCain presses on with campaign-finance reform

Jonathan Karl
Jonathan Karl  

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl reports on John McCain's bid to push campaign-finance reform through the Senate.

Q: Is McCain getting closer to having his legislation passed?

KARL: John McCain is acting like his campaign for president never ended. Stepping on the toes of Republicans like Trent Lott and others who want to work on President Bush's agenda first, McCain is forging ahead with campaign-finance reform that looks more like a national campaign, much more so than just another bit of legislation working its way through the Senate.

McCain held a press conference Monday with Russ Feingold and several other Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. He announced his bill and then walked down to the Senate and formally introduced his bill. And he waged a media offensive. He was on all three network morning shows Monday, a network show trifecta.

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Tuesday, he, along with a whole host of special interest groups in favor of campaign-finance reform, is to announce a national campaign on the issue that will include townhall meetings in the states of McCain's fellow senators who are either undecided on the issue or opposed to it.

So, McCain is not wasting any time in giving the new president a little bit of a headache.

Q: How is the Senate Republican leadership reacting to McCain's efforts?

KARL: Cautiously.

They are very, very cautious. Trent Lott simply doesn't want to have a big battle with McCain over this right now. And Lott is making noises that sound like he is ready to compromise -- if not on the substance of the issue, certainly on the timing. And the timing is very important to McCain because he wants to get started right away. He doesn't want to wait for Bush's agenda to go first.

McCain says you've got to start with campaign-finance reform. But Lott says he is confident he can come to an agreement with McCain and is saying he would be willing to see a full Senate debate and vote on the issue by possibly late March, which is coming a long way for Lott. Lott originally said it should wait for the end of the year and then he said maybe by the end of summer.

Now, Lott seems to be almost resigned to the fact that this will be one of the first bits of business for the Senate.

Q: What are the political motivations for McCain to be pushing for campaign-finance reform now?

KARL: McCain is a warrior. McCain is as driven as I've ever seen. He is approaching this in all-out way because he believes he has a mandate. There's a lot of talk about a new president's mandate. But McCain said point blank on Monday that "I have a mandate too."

That's kind of an unusual way to put it given the fact he lost to Bush in the primaries. But he believes that while he lost to Bush, his overall message of campaign-finance reform resonated throughout the country and with people in both parties.

McCain believes that if he waits on this, he'll lose the momentum that he has.

Q: Is this the start of McCain's presidential bid in 2004?

KARL: I really don't think so.

McCain had a scare late last August with skin cancer, a very serious scare. And he's been fairly emphatic that he will never run for president again. So, I don't see a lot of wiggle room there.

It's always possible he could change his mind, but there's a real sense from McCain and his top people that it is very unlikely he'll ever run for president again.

But clearly, the presidential campaign for John McCain was the absolute highlight of his political life. In many ways, he's nostalgic about it and humbled by the support he had. And he's eager to never lose the energy that drove his campaign.


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Tuesday, January 23, 2001


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