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Dems to Mccain: Just kidding

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John McCain knows better than most that politics makes strange bedfellows, so he never minded that his campaign-finance-reform bill found more favor among Democrats than Republicans. Two months ago, when McCain sat down with George W. Bush to persuade W. to change his mind about the bill, McCain argued that it wouldn't force Republicans to "unilaterally disarm." A ban on soft-money contributions would hurt Democrats as much or even more. Bush nodded, but since then, he hasn't said another word to McCain about it.

But that rustling of the sheets you hear is the sound of some Dems tiptoeing away from McCain's bed. With the Senate scheduled to begin debate next week on campaign-finance reform, many Democrats are looking--quietly, but with mounting desperation--for a way out. It is an ironic moment: for five years, Democrats have been mouthing off in support of McCain's reform bill while knowing that procedural roadblocks thrown up by Republicans would keep it from coming to a vote. "But this time we're playing with real bullets," says G.O.P. Senator Chuck Hagel, who is sponsoring a rival bill. Senate majority leader Trent Lott has agreed to let McCain and his Democratic co-sponsor, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, have their vote within two weeks. The House is poised to pass a similar measure, which means Congress could finally pass a bill that cuts off hundreds of millions of campaign dollars.

That prospect terrifies politicians in both parties, but Democrats fear they would be hurt more. After years of trailing in the soft-money sweepstakes, the Democrats now almost match the Republicans in raising the unregulated cash. (The party collected $243 million during the past election cycle, compared with the G.O.P.'s $244 million.) But if McCain's bill turns off the faucet, Democrats will have to rely on smaller, regulated "hard-money" contributions, where Republicans hold a big lead ($447 million to $270 million in the past election). "It's crazy," gripes a Democratic Party official. "This is going to fundamentally change the way parties operate--and weaken us." So self-styled do-gooders are doing things that don't fit the image. The AFL-CIO, one of the Democrats' most powerful patrons, has joined business groups to fight a provision barring unions and corporations from running "issue" ads--thinly veiled plugs for candidates--just before elections. Republican Senators now believe they can kill McCain's bill by recruiting potential Democratic defectors, such as New Jersey's Robert Torricelli and Louisiana's John Breaux and Mary Landrieu. (Some will try to save face by supporting Hagel's watered-down version, which caps soft-money contributions at $60,000.) Senate minority leader Tom Daschle insists that "most Democrats" will still vote for McCain's measure, "but that doesn't mean we won't try to find ways to see if we can tweak it." The tweaking, McCain fears, could consist of cleverly worded amendments that seem friendly but weaken the bill. "The special interests opposed to this are crawling out of the woodwork," he says.

McCain and Feingold have been barnstorming the states of Senators whose votes are in doubt. Last Friday, while Bush was in Lafayette, La., pressuring Breaux and Landrieu to support his tax cut, McCain and Feingold were in New Orleans pressuring them to support campaign-finance reform. Public-interest groups, hoping to hold the Louisianans and others to past promises, are dredging up newsclips in which the lawmakers are quoted as saying they will vote for McCain's bill. To switch now "would truly be the height of hypocrisy," says Matt Keller, Common Cause's deputy legislative director. But even if they're shamed into sticking with McCain, many Democrats secretly hope Bush will veto the bill. Politicians lie awake at night worrying about survival, not hypocrisy.


Cover Date: March 19, 2001



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