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Sens. McCain, Feingold Hold Arkansas Town Hall Meeting on Campaign Finance Reform

Aired January 29, 2001 - 1:33 p.m. ET


NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Another big vote that will be watched definitely very closely in the Senate in a few weeks will be that on campaign finance reform. This, as a know, is the baby of Sen. John McCain. He's cosponsoring legislation with the Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold. It has passed in the House, but it has died repeatedly in the Senate. Republicans have prevented the bill from ever coming to a final vote, using, among many other strategies, a filibuster. Trent Lott promised John McCain that wouldn't happen this time, so John McCain continues his PR effort.

He's beginning this town hall meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, so we'll listen in for a few moments.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: ... who are on the floor of the Senate who will say, we need to reform the system again because there will be smart people who will find ways around it. That's been the cycle of American history. And I believe that we now have the momentum. And the reason why Russ and I are here and the reason why we're going to be all around the country is because we have to get Americans motivated and inspired and demand this system be changed. The present system, my friends, keeps incumbents in office. We are asking incumbents to vote to change a system that favors incumbents, and that's why we've got to have the pressure from the people of this country.

It's been a great privilege and pleasure for me to be with Russ on this issue and a number of other issues. We'll talk about, by the way, the gift ban and when the gift ban kicks in, if you'd like to.


But the fact is that we have -- we've done other things together: the gift ban, lobbying ban, and a number of other reform issues. And after this one is done, we'll be working on others in the future.

I thank you for coming. We look forward to your questions and comments and occasional insults, and we look forward to the opportunity.

(LAUGHTER) And thank you to our folks here at the University of Arkansas- Little Rock for your kind hospitality and allowing us to be here today. Thank you very much.


We're ready. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) of all the issues, how quickly the campaign finance cycle starts again? And have you ever considered doing like some of the other democracies in the world and shortening the political cycle? It seems one of the issues is that it really never stops.

MCCAIN: I -- you know, I've thought about that. And I think that there's nobody that would appreciate the opportunity to have that -- the question was about shortening the election cycle -- Than those of us who have to run, particularly my House friends here, who literally, in some cases, have to start running the day after they are elected.

Mike, I would argue that you probably feel that way, having just gone through a very hotly contested campaign.

The problem is one that I don't know how constitutionally you could say that. The difference between our government and a European government is the government dissolves, and they have a period of elections in England and France, and in other European democracies. Our government never goes out of business so you can't really say, OK, everything stops for two, three, five, six weeks.

So, constitutionally, you just couldn't -- you could not shorten the electoral season, although, again, I would -- a lot of us would love to see that be the case.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Just to add a quick point on that, I agree with John. You -- we can't constitutionally, you know, prevent people from going to the Rotary Club or even running ads, probably. But what banning soft money does is take a lot of this money out of the system so that it isn't so easy to run the ads for a full two years. Unless you're crazy you don't want to go completely dark in October, and so people would have to save their resources. And that's why the hard money has the effect of preventing this from being this endless television campaign that, of course, drives us all crazy.

So I think our bill would help make it seem like these campaigns aren't so endless.

QUESTION: I have a question.


QUESTION: Sen. Feingold?

FEINGOLD: Yes, sir. QUESTION: Is there anything that can be done to eliminate the need for (OFF-MIKE)?

FEINGOLD: Well, it's already the law that TV stations are required to give a somewhat lower rate to political figures for a period of time. But the rate's not low enough. And we also, I think, need free television time. The truth is, the first McCain-Feingold Bill, years ago, that we couldn't get a majority for, said that if candidates limit how much they spend overall, if they get most of their money from their own home state, if they don't get too much from PACs and don't spend too much of their own money, in return they should get a reduced -- half price on their television time and some free TV time.

I'd love to see that. We don't have the votes to do that now, though, it would be fair to say.

MCCAIN: Let me -- can I just add one comment? There's another phenomenon that we saw in the last cycle, and that is the millionaires. You may know that there was a senator who paid -- who spent $70 million -- a candidate who spent $70 million of his own money to become a United States senator. We're looking at, perhaps after a candidate spends a certain amount of their own money, then they don't get that lowest rate anymore. We're looking at perhaps -- and I said this is why we need debates and amendments, and debate on the floor of the Senate. If someone spends a certain amount of money, of their own money, then perhaps some of the restrictions should be relaxed on the candidate who's not spending their own money.

We've got to explore these so that someone really -- free speech, someone goes in, wants to spend their own money, whatever they want, they're allowed to. But perhaps we ought to look at some way we can help the challenger who is not spending their own money.

Russ's first primary, he was caught between two multimillionaires. I've forgotten how much.

FEINGOLD: $4.5 million and $2.5 million, but they decided -- three weeks before the primary I was at 9 percent in the vote -- polls. One was at 42 and one was at 40. They decided to attack each other with their money. And by the end, I was the only one standing.


So I won!


MCCAIN: But we need to look at that as well, I think.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Now, for example, Washington, D.C. hasn't, as you know, for some time now. We have hundreds of thousands of people up there demonstrating against the senator from Missouri right now. These 15 of those so-called nonprofit corporations -- 15 of them -- are receiving my tax dollars. Now, before you pass this campaign finance law, I think that you should look into finding out how much money they're getting from the federal government and how much money they're spending and how they're spending it. I'm not talking about Common Cause, I'm talking (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Now another thing...

MCCAIN: Can I respond to that? Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I belonged to a union one time (OFF-MIKE). A union for school, that's fine. But I'm against joining (OFF-MIKE). They take my money and they spend it against my -- the man I want to be elected. Now, why in the world don't I have the right to withhold my money? Legally, yes, if I write them a letter. But now why don't you give them protection for that notarized letter? If you write a letter to the union boss and you want your money back, believe me you're going to be a scape goat and you're going to have to put something in there to protect that man if he wants his money back.


MCCAIN: I'll make two comments. One of the reasons why we have this provision in the bill that the last 30 days of the primary in the last 60 days of the general, in response to your first comment, that all contributions have to be disclosed. We want full disclosure. We want to know where those people got the money that are running...


MCCAIN: Including everybody, sir. Everybody. We want everybody. We figure that if somebody involves himself in a political campaign.

Now, if you want to advocate an issue -- a person's right to -- or a woman's right to choose, a woman's right to life, a right to own and bear arms -- that's fine. Spend all the money you want and don't disclose who your donors are. But if you get into a political campaign and a face or name is mentioned in a broadcast, then all of that should be known to the American people who gave that money.

And, sir, I think that addresses, at least to some degree, your first concern.

As far as your second concern -- and I'll make this very quick -- look, I believe that every American -- I'm sure that there are people in this room that disagreed with me -- I believe that no one should be forced to join a union, OK? I'd love to see that. But many states have made different decisions on that.


MCCAIN: Pardon me, sir. Well...

FEINGOLD: Hey, we don't agree on everything.

(LAUGHTER) MCCAIN: But my point is that if you ban the soft money, you ban it for unions, you ban it for trial lawyer, you ban it for corporations, you ban it for every -- well, sir, I guarantee you I'd be glad to show you how it does.

The union -- the largest contribution that I know of in the last campaign was a local union leader. A man in New York walked up and handed Al Gore a check for a million dollars. We would ban that. they would not be able to do that.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) if you want churches to burn, vote Republican. Now, I protect that person's right to do that. They should have the right to do it. I object to it. If I want to spend $100,000 of my money, I don't care...

MCCAIN: Everybody would know you did it, sir. Everyone would know that you did it.


Thank you, thank you.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Senator?

MCCAIN: We've got plenty of time. We've got plenty of time.

QUESTION: I'd like to address two issues on your proposed legislation. I met with you in Washington, in Washington National Airport one Sunday morning at the advent of the Clinton administration. You've long since forgotten, but we had a terrific talk. And I went away feeling very confident that the freedoms of America would be upheld by you. And I look to you as a national icon.

And as one old pilot to another, different eras, of course, I'm going to talk turkey to you here on this issue. You're addressing the foreign national involvement in influence peddling, money laundering, what have you. It needs to be eradicated immediately. Now, that's the external position, but I don't see any internal position, i.e. who's going to police you fellows.

Let me give you an example. And I don't mean this to be incendiary or accusatory, just as a formula for disaster. President Bush has just recently appointed a secretary of labor, I believe. I believe she's a Chinese nationalist with direct business relationships with the Riadys, with Jiang Zemin, premier of China. And that's the reason I bring this up. And her father owns a shipping company in relationship with COSCO and so on. And this lady is also married to a United States senator. This to me is a formula for disaster and I don't see in any of your proposed legislation means to address and police your own body.

And the second thing...

MCCAIN: OK, could I respond to that one real quick? QUESTION: Surely.

MCCAIN: She is required -- any nominee is required to make full and complete financial disclosures if there is a connection, as you state -- and I have not heard of that, by the way before, but I'll be glad to look into it -- then Americans will know it. Every senator will know it. We need -- we think that sunshine and disclosure is the best way to address that. And if that's true, then I think you would find a vote of about 99-1, maybe against the senator.

QUESTION: Well, but, being married to a United States senator further complicates that mix. And you have other examples within...

MCCAIN: I'm sure you know how close I am to that that United States senator, so...


FEINGOLD: Of course he's our main opponent on the bill, so -- Sen. McConnell. But...

MCCAIN: Anyway, go ahead.

FEINGOLD: But let me just -- just to make clear on this issue of foreign nationals and the abuses that occurred, our bill, if you kind of look at it, just has a few provisions, but they're all about undoing the scandals from 1996: banning soft money, dealing with phony issue ads.

But there's also two other provision. One is, as you've indicated, we make it absolutely clear that you can't get any contributions from foreign nationals. That's one of the provision in the bill.

The other thing we do is say, controlling legal authority on the issue of whether you can raise money on federal property. Of course you can't. And our bill makes it absolutely clear that politicians in Washington can't use their offices or the Lincoln Bedroom or anything else for raising money, which is what was done before. And I think that's going to happen create an atmosphere where the kind of thing you're worried about can't happen so easily.

ALLEN: Campaign finance reform getting debated there in Little Rock, Arkansas. This town hall meeting sponsored by Common Cause, which is a nonprofit that supports campaign finance reform. At the center of the debate is a ban on soft money which would be a ban to the unlimited and unregulated donations to political parties. McCain's bill would also put new restrictions on issue advertising by unions and businesses in the last months before an election. And as we mentioned, debate on this bill will come up in a few weeks on Capitol Hill. So we'll continue to follow along on this issue.



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