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Sens. McCain, Feingold, and Cochran Hold News Briefing on Campaign Finance Reform

Aired January 4, 2001 - 3:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: I want to move quickly to Washington now to Capitol Hill and Senate Press Gallery, where Senator John McCain and Senator Russ Feingold are due to speak at any moment now. Two reporters gathered to discuss some of -- what may prove to be a bit of an issue facing the incoming Bush administration, sort of a first shot across the bow, and that is Senator McCain and Senator Feingold talking about their attentions to introduce a campaign finance reform bill. Something that we know has been of great interest to both of these men in the past, and something Senator McCain brought up whne he was ta candidate for president.

Here he is to speak to the reporters now.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Good afternoon.

Senator Feingold and I are here today to discuss with you our plans for campaign finance reform. As we have said before, we'd like to bring it up as early as possible. We think the best time to address it in a bipartisan fashion would be as soon as the inauguration is over, during the period when the confirmation hearings and nominations are going on, before the Bush legislative agenda comes to the Hill. We still think that that is the -- and we'll continue to press for that scheduling.

Senator Feingold and I have had numerous conversations. We are still not exactly set on what we will seek to have passed, as far as whether it be the complete McCain-Feingold, or whether it be soft money ban plus the so-called Snowe-Jeffords amendment, which affects the independent campaigns. And we'll be in discussions with that -- with all of those who are supporting campaign finance reform, including the person who will speak after Senator Feingold.

I believe that the country wants this reform. There is no doubt about the explosion of soft money. There is no doubt that it is gridlocked us here in Washington. And the message of the least election is that Americans do not want that.

So, we're here today to tell you again that we will continue to press for the earliest consideration of it. I find it somewhat entertaining that those who are in favor of campaign finance reform want it brought up at the earliest. Those who are opposed, want it brought up at the latest. I'm sure that that is coincidental. So we will continue to press for that. Senator Feingold?

FEINGOLD: Thank you, John, very much.

I'm extremely pleased to be here with John and with Senator Cochran. And I certainly will let him make his own statement in a minute.

All I can say is that Senator Cochran is one of the most distinguished and respected members of the United States Senate; a senior Republican senator, who I felt has always listened carefully to the arguments we've made.

We've not always agreed, but he has always listened extremely carefully to these arguments that we made over the last five years.

We've come to the point where we are pretty confident that there are 59 people on board this bill with the new Democratic senators that have come. Obviously, we need to get to the magic 60. And I believe today the dam will break and that campaign finance reform will pass the United States Senate.

It should be done after an open amending process. John and I believe that every senator, of course, should be a part of that process. But I think today signals that we have reached that point.

And I just want to remind everybody that this is a modest bill. It is not public financing, it is not a violation of the First Amendment. It is not even the type of effort that John and I started with years ago. It is a modest piece of legislation and the time has some, and now is the time to act.

So with that, I turn it over to our friend and colleague -- yes, please, John.

MCCAIN: I'd be remiss without saying one of the most respected men in the United States Senate, a man who I have been friends with since before I was a member of Congress. Our origins date back to the same state of Mississippi. He and I have had numerous conversations over the years on this issue, and I am very pleased that he is here today.

Senator Cochran?

COCHRAN: Thank you very much, Senator McCain and Senator Feingold.

I'm here with them today to announce that I think campaign reform legislation should be a high priority in the Senate this year. And I'm looking forward to taking an active role in this effort.

It is no secret that candidates have a lot of rules they have to comply with in the federal election process: disclosing the sources of all contributions they receive; limitations on the amounts of those contributions are very strict, and in small amounts; all expenditures have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission on regular reports. And the effect of that, compared with the rules that apply to everybody else, is that the candidates are now unable really to compete with the independent groups, those who raise monies from sources that don't have to be disclosed, can spend monies in unlimited amounts in almost any way imaginable, attacking candidates, supporting some candidates, has made this federal election process very, very difficult, especially from the candidates' point of view.

We are almost defenseless under the rules that now exist.

That's one reason why I'm interested in being a part of this campaign reform effort. But I think that John McCain and Russ Feingold have focused the attention of the nation on this issue. The work they have done has been very important.

We have a very closely divided Senate in a partisan relationship this year. It seems to me that the time is now when we should try to explore a common ground, see if we can find a consensus in the Senate with an open legislative process for amendment and debate of the options that senators think should be considered as a part of campaign reform.

There have been a lot of suggested changes by many senators on this subject. I, frankly, am very impressed with the Snowe-Jeffords title of this campaign reform bill that Senators McCain and Feingold have introduced.

There are parts of McCain-Feingold that I don't find all that attractive. But I think, as a part of an overall effort, we need to move this issue to a high priority on the agenda of the Senate in this year. And I'm glad to be a part of this effort.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, President-elect Bush again indicated today that he doesn't support McCain-Feingold or the various variations of it.

Why do you go ahead with something at this juncture when he's just taking office and he would prefer to bring other items to the Congress?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all, President-elect Bush did support a campaign finance reform proposal that he introduced during the South Carolina primaries. I would be glad to have that as a starting point for us to begin negotiations with him. He -- his proposal banned corporate and union involvement in American political campaigns. That's not what we want, but it's my understanding he's in favor of that.

Second of all, I want to repeat: We all know that the first couple of weeks after the inauguration will be consumed by the nominating and confirmation process of the presidential Cabinet and presidential appointees. That would be a perfect time to dispense with this issue, and then, when President Bush's legislative agenda is ready to be considered, we will have that out of the way, rather than interrupt it at some point in time.

Someone has to convince me that we will be taking up a legislative agenda right after the inauguration. It has never happened and won't happen, and we know it won't happen. So, to say that we shouldn't take it up right after the inauguration because of some legislative agenda is simply nonsense.

QUESTION: Senator Cochran, I didn't quite understand. Do you support the McCain-Feingold law, or are you looking to that as a start?

COCHRAN: Well, I'm going to support this vehicle as the only legislative vehicle for campaign reform that is currently being discussed and has been introduced in the Senate. I think it can be improved by strengthening the disclosure provisions.

And I hope to be a part of the effort to achieve a result that a majority of the Senate can support and we can enact into law to improve the campaign system.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

COCHRAN: I will support this legislative vehicle. I hope it can be enlarged in scope to include other provisions that will strengthen particularly the disclosure requirements.

MCCAIN: Could I make two quick comments? One, we want to include the disclosure proposals of Senator Cochran's in our proposal, number one.

And number two is that we don't expect this thing to emerge as McCain-Feingold. What we want is the amending process. And we will respect whoever gets 51 votes.

Now, it may be at the point where we would end up voting against our own bill if it was to get 51. All we're asking for is the normal legislative process of amendments and final disposition of the legislation. But we will be including some of Senator Cochran's disclosure provisions in the bill when we introduce it.

QUESTION: Senator Cochran, can you explain why you came to this position? When you voted against this in October, how -- did you, sort of, see the light, or are you just reading the writing on the wall? Can you explain the evolution of your position?

COCHRAN: Well, I don't know that that's a correct assumption.

QUESTION: You voted against Senator McCain in October, right?

COCHRAN: I don't recall.

(CROSSTALK)

MCCAIN: We didn't have a vote.

COCHRAN: What year was that?

QUESTION: '99.

COCHRAN: OK. Well, that's not 2000. OK.

QUESTION: But you voted against the...

COCHRAN: I have been in favor of campaign reform for a long time. And when I was a House member, over 20 years ago, I was a part of an effort with John Anderson -- remember him? -- to modify the campaign finance laws.

I came to the Senate. We've had some opportunities to make improvements, but we really haven't achieved what I thought would be all that we should do to help make this system something that all Americans could be proud of.

I think we have made a system that is now so heavily influenced by the fund-raising and the spending of money, not just by candidates -- candidates don't do as much of the fund-raising as other groups do. Whether they're political parties -- which I think we should protect their role, incidentally -- but other organized groups without any requirements to disclose the sources of contributions, what their agenda is, how money is being spent, in what way the money is being spent. We know a lot of advertising is being purchased, but how else is the money being spent to influence federal election outcomes?

I just think that the whole system has become overwhelmed by the access of organizations to money to be used to influence campaigns. Now, maybe that's protected under the freedom of speech clause, but I think that we can require disclosure and some limitations can be imposed. They are imposed on candidates, it seems to me that they can be imposed on others.

QUESTION: Senator Cochran, have you discussed your position here with the (OFF-MIKE) to tell us what he might have said to you about it? And, further, do you expect to be able to be a bridge between the co-authors of this bill, being a more conservative element of your party (OFF-MIKE)

COCHRAN: The only person I've discussed this with is John McCain. And I've talked to him about it in the past and told him that I would be glad to support his bill. I would hope it could include some disclosure provisions that I thought might strengthen the bill. He assured me he would try to help in that regard.

And so, here I am today, announcing my willingness to be a part of the campaign reform effort in the Senate.

I haven't talked to anybody else about it. I've heard a lot of conversation about the issues, of course; we all have. But I've kept my own counsel on this subject. And I hope that my involvement will help bring about a consensus on this issue and the passage of legislation that truly improves the federal election process, not just to benefit the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, but to help make it a better system and one that all Americans can be proud of.

MCCAIN: Can I mention? I view him as a bridge. I view him as a bridge, but also more importantly, I view him as one of the most respected men in the United States Senate, who has a very strong friendships and relationships with other Republicans, as well as Democrats. I think he will play a key role in this legislative process.

Don't you, Russ?

FEINGOLD: Absolutely.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, President-elect Bush has said that he would support campaign finance reform if it had so-called paycheck protection.

MCCAIN: No, I would not.

I believe that if we'd enacted Snowe-Jeffords, any objective observer will agree that you restrict sufficiently the role of unions, you restrict the trial lawyers, you restrict the corporations, you restrict all the others. That if you have -- within 60 days of an election, that if someone, organization or any party mentions the name or shows the likenesses, of a candidate in a broadcast, then they are subject to the $1,000 contribution limit. And that would take care of that problem.

Finally, if you are going to enact a prohibition for union members' dues to be used without their permission, then you should also require the permission of stockholders if corporations are going to use stockholders' monies for political purposes as well, in my view.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, just to clear something. Have you got 60 votes? Are you convinced that -- are you confident you've gotten the momentum and the votes?

MCCAIN: I believe that we have momentum. I believe we have the votes. I cannot promise you that. A lot of strange things happen in this long odyssey that we have been through. But I believe we have the votes and I believe we have the momentum.

I was just over at a briefing with John Zogbee, a most respected pollster. He briefed the Republicans. He said our number one agenda item should be campaign finance reform if we're going to cure the cynicism and alienation of the American voters. That wasn't the most popular statement that I've ever heard given at a Republican conference. But when people like a respected pollster, like John Zogbee, say that, Republicans do pay attention.

So I can't guarantee you anything. You've been around this town longer than I have. But I believe that we have the best opportunity we've ever had right now.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: It never has. I've been around here -- in all these years, it never has. It never has and it never will because the administration hasn't got their Cabinet people and their team together and ready to send over their legislative agenda. I mean, it's fact.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Two or three weeks easily. We should be able to get this done in a week of hard work.

QUESTION: If Senator Lott won't schedule it...

MCCAIN: We will exercise our -- we are considering all options to see that it is brought up as soon as possible, all options that we have. We hope we can achieve this through negotiations.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Just a unanimous consent request to move to the legislation is one of the options we are considering.

QUESTION: Senator, how important is (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: I think it's very important. I think it's absolutely of importance. But I also believe that if we got a result here, that was a bipartisan result, showing the American people -- and it has to be bipartisan if we're going to get a result -- showing the American people we can work together, it seems to me that it would be in everybody's interest to have that bill enacted into law. If Republicans and Democrats join together in enacting a meaningful campaign finance reform package, it seems to me it would be in everybody's interest to see that bill made law.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: We have to deal with hypotheticals as they come up.

FEINGOLD: Let me just say, as a Democrat, I've been very pleased with the Bush administration's comments to date since the election.

There's never been the word "veto" used. There have been a number of comments by Vice President-elect Cheney, by Andrew Card and others, none of which suggested that they are trying to stop this.

There are certain things they were prefer, but I feel that it's been a positive outreach. And I think that that is a good sign for working with the White House on this.

QUESTION: Senator Feingold, do you assume that the Democrats will continue to essentially vote as a block in favor of your position on this?

FEINGOLD: Democrats have not voted, really, as a block on this. The result has been ultimately that we have all of the Democrats on board.

But each of us have come to the conclusion that Senator Cochran has come to, based on our own experience, that this system has to change. I am confident, based on public statements and private conversations, that every Democrat will be there for the base bill that we're talking about here, both on the procedural and substantive votes. But we recognize that the only way this works is as bipartisan effort. Our bipartisan ranks are growing. But I am confident that our caucus will be firmly behind this bill.

MCCAIN: I can imagine amendments where Republicans and Democrats are split. I mean, as you go through the amending process.

QUESTION: When you say the base bill, are you talking about just the soft money ban?

FEINGOLD: As Senator McCain indicated, certainly it will include a ban on soft money to the parties. But he's done a very fine job of indicating some of the other things that may be a part of this as well as Senator Cochran's ideas on disclosure. So what the base bill will be -- that's the potential options, but we don't know for sure what exactly it will be.

I'm confident the Democrats will be behind any combination thereof.

QUESTION: Can you think of any -- don't tell us the names if you don't want to, but do you know of any prospects amongst Republicans that you think (OFF-MIKE)

COCHRAN: No, I really haven't though about the strategy at all, but I have focused on the substance of the legislation and tried to think about how we can go forward with the legislation and get it enacted.

I just think that this is the right time to move on the bill. The scheduling, incidentally, I'm not getting into trying to tell the once and future majority leader when the bill should be scheduled.

(LAUGHTER)

I think I've bitten off about as much as I can chew today.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Senator McCain, usually (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: In our past experiences, Russ and mine, with lobbying ban, gift ban, line item veto, other reform issues, there's seems to be a breaking point. And then once you're there it seems to be -- it's either like 56 or 76. You know what I mean? It's a whole lot of 60th votes.

Yes?

QUESTION: You talk about bipartisanship, but your own party leadership says that this is actually a partisan issue, one that is promoted by Democrats and not Republicans. Why start off the legislative session with a partisan issue?

MCCAIN: Well, first of all...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAIN: First of all, could I say again, President Bush made a commitment to at least campaign finance reform in the South Carolina primary. Everyone, with very few exceptions, believe that we have to enact campaign finance reform. Most Republicans want to see some kind of reforms as a result, frankly, of some of their experiences in the last election where we lost five seats.

The second point is that we've been involved, my partner and I, in this crusade for a long time. He risked his entire election on the issue of campaign finance reform when he rejected the influence of outside money into his campaign. I promised millions of Americans when I ran for president of the Untied States that I would not give up on this crusade of reform, the gateway to which is campaign finance reform.

I have the utmost respect of the verdict of the voters, and I will do everything in my power I can to cooperate with President Bush and the incoming administration. I think we showed that this morning with the hearing of the first Cabinet nominee, Mr. Evans. But I cannot and will not in good conscience give up on this effort.

And everyone knows, everyone knows, that the longer you delay in bringing up this issue, the less the likelihood it is of passage. I mean, that's just a political reality.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, you talk about the nominations where your work on campaign finance (OFF-MIKE) Don Evans and all the money that he raised during the campaign -- your criticism of that last fall.

MCCAIN: Well, I can't -- first of all, it's my understanding of it the way Mr. Evans raised his money was through $1,000 contributions; he just found about a million of them.

(LAUGHTER)

But the second point is that I can't go back and revisit the ills of the past. What we have to do is go forward and try to cure those ills so that they don't happen again.

Mr. Evans is the president's friend and his selection. The fact that he raised money for the president has no bearing, in my view, on the prerogative of the president of the United States to appoint people of his choice to his Cabinet.

QUESTION: If I recall correctly, in the South Carolina primaries, if it were President Bush's campaign finance bill that passed (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: No, because you leave some loopholes in it. But at least there's some good to it. I mean, it's not without merit. It's just not as complete as I would want.

Thank you.

CHEN: Senator John McCain speaking with Senator Russ Feingold; two figures, of course, who have long been very involved in the movement for campaign finance reform.

Obviously, long-time advocates for this, talking about something of a warning -- something of an advisory to the incoming Bush administration that they will push for campaign finance reform issues to be taken up right at the start of the Bush presidency.

Also indicating that they think they now have the votes in the Senate for this to happen. As Senator McCain said, the best opportunity we have ever had, although he did note, there is no guarantee.

At -- on this point of importance at the podium with Senators McCain and Feingold today, was Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, who says he is now ready to be part of the movement. Senator Cochran being important, of course, because he is a long-standing Republican senator from the state of Mississippi, which is, of course, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott as well.

With all of that background and framework, let's go to Chris Black, who has been listening in on this news conference with the reporters there.

Chris, talk about the significance of what the senators are saying here. Is this something of a shot across the bow to the Bush administration?

CHRIS BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Unquestionably, Joie.

This is something that George Bush would rather not happen at the very beginning of his administration. And, in fact, Republican leaders have been trying to persuade Senator John McCain to delay this. In fact, today, Don Nickles, one of the top leaders in the Senate, said that he would hope that they could bring it up maybe in July. Our producer, Dana Bash, asked him about that, and John McCain burst out laughing.

He says that if it doesn't happen now, it will probably never happen, that they will lose momentum. There is a change -- a sea change, really -- in politics in this country because of experiences of independent expenditures. There's a lot of concern that people are getting involved in spending money on television ads. This happened to John McCain himself during the primaries, particularly in New York and South Carolina. Supporters of George Bush attacked him in television ads. And this has only hardened his resolve -- Joie.

CHEN: All right, Chris Black, we will come back to you later in the day, I'm sure, as we continue more discussions about what Senator McCain and Senator Feingold had to say.

We want to note to our viewers, as well, that CNN did try to call Senator Mitch McConnell and Senator Trent Lott, of course, as key figures on the Republican side, and their positions about campaign- finance reform. But they were not available for comment this afternoon.

I want to move to Major Garrett, our correspondent who is Austin, Texas, watching as the Bush administration has been under way.

Not actually a response yet from the Bush administration, but Mr. Bush did have some comments about campaign-finance reform today, Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he did, Joie.

And this is clearly a breach of political etiquette in Washington. I mean, typically, certainly members of the incoming president's party would reserve all access to the legislative agenda to that incoming president. Senator McCain made clear that he is going to stand in line before the president-elect's legislative agenda, trying to put campaign finance before the Senate and before the nation.

The president-elect was asked at a photo opportunity just a few moments ago here in Austin that he had with high-tech executives: Would he support the campaign-finance-reform proposals put forward by Senator McCain? Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: I support a campaign-funding reform, so long as business and labor are treated equally. And I think it's very important to make sure that there is paycheck protection in any campaign-funding reform, so that the playing field is level. But I think so long as somebody doesn't have any -- if money is being spent on behalf of somebody who has no voice, I think we ought to get rid of that kind of money.

For example, if corporate America is spending money on behalf of a shareholder, and a shareholder has no voice, I think that ought be banned, so long as the same is applied to labors unions as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GARRETT: And that is the balance that it will be very hard to strike in the U.S. Senate -- or in the U.S. House, for that matter. Here is the real dividing line on this issue, Joie. The president- elect said he wants paycheck protection. What currently happens for members of labor unions now is, the labor-union organization that represents them at the top can use some of their labor-union dues to fund political activities.

Republicans have long said that that is wrong, that what any member of a labor union should have the right to do is sign a notification to that union and say: Look, you can't use my union dues for this political purpose because I disagree with that. Democrats strongly oppose that. And they argue that the union money in American politics is much smaller than corporate-American money, and that they need all the money they can get to drive their message, to compete equally, or at least partially equally with corporate America. This is a sharp dividing line. Senator McCain made it clear at that press conference, he would not add it to his campaign-finance reform, would oppose it. So the fault lines are very clear indeed -- Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Major Garrett in Austin, Texas.

Again, for viewers who are just joining us, we have been watching a press conference by Senator McCain and Senator Feingold, of course, two long-time advocates of campaign-finance reform, sending a bit of message to president-elect Bush that they intend to bring up this issue, to push for legislation in the first days of the incoming Bush administration.

CNN is following in and filling in on the details of this story. We are going to be pursuing this throughout the afternoon. You will get the best coverage here throughout the day.

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