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Special Event

McCain/Feingold Bill Receives Conservative Democrat Approval

Aired March 14, 2001 - 1:18 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We brought you live moments ago the president again talking about his tax-cut plan. And certainly, that's a story we're all watching unfold on Capitol Hill.

But another really big boat -- some say it could be even bigger than a tax cut vote -- is campaign finance reform, the McCain/Feingold bill.

And right now, some conservative Democrats are saying there in the House gallery that they are going to vote for campaign finance reform. It's a vote that comes up in the Senate next week.

So we'll listen in here for a few moments, and we'll talk about it.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), CONNECTICUT: (JOINED IN PROGRESS) ... for corporate treasury money to be used in campaigns. Since 1907, it's been against the law. It's been against the law since 1947 for union dues money to be in campaigns, except internally. Internally, you can use union dues money to talk to all your members, and there's a wide membership. But it's been against the law.

It's a stronger provision to just enforce the 1947 law in some paycheck protection which just deals with one side, unions, and doesn't deal with corporations. This bill enforces the 1907 law and the 1947 law because it shuts down the loopholes. Sham issue ads, call them campaign ads, they're great campaign ads. And it bans soft money, the other loophole.

I really, from the bottom of my heart, thank the Blue Dogs for, you know, coming to the plate right now and leaving no doubt where this Democratic Party stands on this very important issue, at least in the House.

And Russ, you got your job in the Senate.

REP. ALLEN BOYD (D), FLORIDA: Thank you very much, Chris, Senator McCain, Senator Feingold. You all have been our heroes, and we want to call on, first, Senator Feingold and then let Senator McCain wind up.

Senator?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Thank you very much. Well, it's true that there might be some knocking of knees, nervousness, whatever you want to call it, over in the Senate, including on the Democratic side, and that's why we come here to the House today. This is where we draw our strength, because these are the people that have gotten the job done. Shays and Meehan, they know how to bring everybody together and they ask for the tough votes to be taken.

When I look at the Blue Dogs here, I first see Jim Matheson. He and I used to be an incredible basketball combination in school. Actually, we were terrible, but we're old friends. When I see a guy like Jim and see other members of the House that I looked up to when I came here and learned a lot from.

What the Blue Dogs do is look not first at whether they're going to be reelected. They don't look first at whether it's going to hurt them or help them. They look first at what this process is doing to our country, and they also are willing to take on some very strong interests that have supported them. This is tough. This is hard to do. And we are very grateful.

It will provide an example, as Chris said, for those who are feeling shaky on the other side. I think we will prevail, but the only reason we'll prevail is that we have the model of the House and the Blue Dogs to look to to show us the way to go.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Thank you, Allen. Thank you all.

Thank you, Blue Dogs. Thank you Ken Lucas and Jim Matheson and Mike McIntyre and Jane Harman and Jim Turner, all of our members who are here, and all the members of the Blue Dogs that are not here.

I especially want to, obviously, thank my old friends Chris Shays and Marty Meehan.

(LAUGHTER)

There are certain coincidences in politics. We had planned this press conference about a week ago, I believe it was. And yet, it couldn't come at a better time, because as we all know, there's maybe a couple of Democrat senators on the other side who are maybe getting a little nervous or trying to even look for an exit sign.

The fact is, that the Blue Dogs, all 33 of them, in my view, represent the present and future of American politics. They represent the great center that has grown so much in American politics in recent years, the great center that will rule the political scene in American politics.

And I want to say a word about one person, that's Charlie Stenholm, who was really one of the founding fathers of the Blue Dogs, who I have respected, admired and appreciated for many years. Long ago, Charlie Stenholm had this vision that there were centrist politicians in the Congress of the United States, that there were Democrats who wanted also to work with Republicans. And I'm grateful for what the Blue Dogs have done. Let me just say one more word. We always knew this was going to be tough. We knew it was going to be tough, and we said it was going to be tough for two fundamental reasons.

One, we're asking incumbents to vote to change a system that keeps incumbents in office. There were 20 or 30 House races that were heavily contested. There were seven or eight Senate races that were heavily contested.

And the other reason is that every single special interest group in America and on K Street that, through the use of money obtains access and influence in the legislative process, is scared to death about this legislation, because it diminishes their influence and power. It's that simple, my friends.

Should it surprise anyone that the same time that the AFL-CIO comes out with opposition to the legislation that the National Right to Work organization should come out in opposition? Does it surprise anyone that those that are dependent on money are opposed, and organizations such as the AARP, that depend on membership and not money to exert political influence, come out in favor of the legislation? It should surprise no one.

So Russ and I are happy warriors.

My friends, we've been in this a long time. We're going to have a great debate on the Senate side. And after that, we're going to have a great debate on the House side. And this issue will not go away.

If I might mention, Chris said, in 1907, thanks to the great reformer, Theodore Roosevelt, we outlawed corporate contributions to American political campaigns. Why? Because the robber barons had taken over, for all intents and purposes, elections in America. So we cleaned it up. In '47, we cleaned it up again. In 1974, they cleaned it up again.

And I promise you that 20 or 30 years from now, Charlie Stenholm, the Blue Dogs, and a group of others will be standing here saying, "We've got to clean up the system again," because there will be smart people that figure out loopholes in the system. Just as we reformed the tax code in 1986, all of us agree the tax code needs to be reformed again.

So we're happy warriors. We're going to go into this thing and give it everything we've got. And I'll tell you basically what it's going to come down to. It's going to come down to American public opinion. If Americans can stand up and help us stand up against the special interests that now control the legislative process in the Congress, then we'll win -- Americans that want us to enact an HMO patients' bill of rights; Americans that wants a prescription drug program for seniors; Americans that want a tax code that's not 44,000 pages long that nobody can understand; Americans that want the defense establishment and the military reforms so we can meet the challenges of the post-Cold War era and not be buying ships that the military says they neither want nor need. So that's basically what it's going to come down to. But sooner or later, we will prevail, my friends. We will prevail. You cannot stand against this reform.

And finally, I ran for president of the United States and lost. I keep taking that trip down memory lane, but the fact is that everybody said that nobody cared about reform of the institutions of government or campaign finance reform. I think we proved they did care and they do care.

And look, we're not doing this for the people here that are standing here behind this podium. Most of us will probably be reelected under normal circumstances. Our incumbency is not at risk. What's at risk here is the confidence and the faith and the trust of a generation of young Americans that will inspire them to serve this country and run for political office. That's not there today. It's not there today. I've been all over this country, and I promise you that young Americans have become cynical and even alienated from the political process -- not from service to the nation, but from political process.

So we're doing this not for us. We're doing this for those 2,000 students I talked to at the University of Oklahoma; to the thousands of young people that Russ and I have talked to all over America, that look to us as a chance to reform the system so that they can once again take part in the political process.

I want to thank the Blue Dogs. This is an important occasion. We know that we can depend on perhaps the most respected group of members of the House of Representatives to stand with us. We are grateful and we will need them before this thing is over.

I thank you.

Questions?

QUESTION: Senator, President Bush is going to come out with a statement of principles that reflect mostly what the senator from Nebraska, Senator Hagel, is going to propose. What's wrong with Hagel's proposals?

MCCAIN: Soft money.

Chris just talked about the fact we outlawed soft money in 1907.

This would now legalize soft money. That would repeal important legislation.

There are some good provisions of Senator Hagel's bill, on disclosure and others. We hope to work with him. But if you're going to allow soft money, then, you now, that simply is not campaign finance reform. That's protection of the special interests.

QUESTION: How serious is the slippage of the Democrats, Senator Feingold...

MCCAIN: I would love to have Senator Feingold respond to that.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINGOLD: Well, we'll find out. This will be the truth test.

You know, I've got to be honest with you. When I, sort of, think of the issue of campaign finance reform, the first image I see is not that of John Breaux. John hasn't been, sort of, enthusiastic about this issue. And I don't regard that as representative of our caucus.

In fact, in some ways, it just is a reminder for those who have made this their central pitch -- in fact, almost every single member of my caucus has not just said they're for campaign finance reform, but has campaigned vigorously about how they are cosponsors of the McCain-Feingold bill.

There are no surprises in this bill. This is the bill that we've had for a couple of years in terms of banning soft money and even the Snowe and Jeffords provisions. Everybody knew when they signed on to it what it was, and they know now.

So obviously, I'm not delighted to lose Senator Breaux on this, but I feel good that we will be able to maintain a level of unity we need in order to, first, keep a majority, which we've had for a long time, and, second, to make sure that nobody gets the idea that a filibuster will work.

So I'm still optimistic.

QUESTION: What changes are you considering?

FEINGOLD: I'm not considering any changes. The report that was made had to do with the new language having to do with coordination. And Senator Dorgan called me this morning to clarify that that story was inaccurate. The only change we talked about had to do with the new coordination language, and we're working on whatever that means.

FEINGOLD: There are no changes contemplated, in terms of the base bill.

MCCAIN: Can I make just one additional comment? Senator Breaux voted five times in favor of McCain-Feingold. I don't know about politics in Louisiana, but in Arizona I would have some difficulty rationalizing that.

And second point, Russ and I have been traveling around the country. Just at random we happened to pick New Orleans and San Francisco, I mean, it was just a random selection. But we were in New Orleans with Senator Landrieu. Senator Landrieu, who is listed as the cosponsor of the Hagel-Landrieu bill, said that she is -- and it's on the record, the press conference -- she is in favor of McCain- Feingold. She wants that first. She will support it and vote for it.

So we don't see significant support on the Democrat side, for sure, for any Hagel legislation.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Centrism and efforts towards bipartisanship, which is really what the Blue Dogs are all about.

QUESTION: You've got McCain-Feingold on the one hand, you've got (OFF-MIKE)

FEINGOLD: What about public financing?

MCCAIN: I do. I do. Hagel is not in the middle of anything. Hagel is an affirmation of soft money. I mean, that's no more in the middle then...

FEINGOLD: I just want to weigh in on that, because this construct you just set up that ignores public financing, which is what I want; that ignores the next level, which is free television time and reduced TV cost, which John and I started with.

And then to somehow...

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

FEINGOLD: ... to somehow characterize, this is absolutely centrist. All it says is we shouldn't have corrupt contributions that have been prohibited throughout the 20th century. We're just putting ourselves back where we were five or six years ago.

MCCAIN: You might mention, Russ, that the total soft money that would be allowed...

FEINGOLD: On the Hagel bill, John said it all when he said that it allows soft money, but it specifically allows all the soft money to come back to the state parties completely.

It's a 100 percent loophole.

Secondly, it institutionalizes soft money by allowing corporations and union treasuries, for the first time in American history, formally to give $60,000 a year.

And third, you know how politicians call up couples and say, "Would you max out?" Under the Hagel bill's rules, the figure that a couple would be able to max out for is $540,000 every two years. That's what he calls reform.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FEINGOLD: Well, as John and I said -- and I'm sorry about all of these questions to us because this is about the Blue Dogs -- but let me just say that John and I sincerely believe that every member of the Senate is an expert on this subject.

And we have proposed our bill. There will be amendments. I don't like the idea of raising individual limits. I have been pushed on this for so many years that I've gone from $1,000 to $1,001, on my personal view.

But the Senate is going to work its will in this. My view is tripling is way too high. OK, but this is something that needs to be openly discussed by all members of the Senate.

I will remind Democrats that it is true that Republicans have the edge on hard money. It would be, kind of, stupid to increase the limit that much since they already have an edge and we lose soft money. It's true, Republicans probably will have somewhat more hard money. Why make it ridiculously easier for them to do it?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FEINGOLD: Which Senator Nelson?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

FEINGOLD: Well, I've been in touch with both of them. I have talked to him on a number of occasions. He is a cosponsor -- or at least I think is a cosponsor -- of the so-called Hagel bill, but also indicated to me that he didn't want to do anything to endanger the possibility of our bill passing, and just I hope he has the same attitude that Senator Landrieu indicated, is that she would give our bill first priority. As long as our bill has a chance of being passed, Senator Landrieu said she would support it even though she is a cosponsor of the other bill. I'm hoping for the same reaction from the senator from Nebraska.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

REP. JIM TURNER (D), TEXAS: That's true.

I'm Jim Turner, I'm the policy co-chair for the Blue Dogs. And I'm convinced that the House is going to hold firm on this.

The Blue Dogs lead the effort to bring the bill to the floor over two years ago with the discharge petition that we pushed and signed and urged our colleagues to join with us. And I don't see any lessening of enthusiasm on our side. Obviously, we all read that there is an acknowledgement that the ban on soft money may hurt Democrats more than it will Republicans, and the numbers would tend to bear that out.

I think the Blue Dogs and most Democrats are committed to this on the basis of principle. It may very well adversely affect some of our re-election efforts. But I can assure you, it's worthwhile to do so, because when my children decide to become involved in politics, I hope that they do it because they know you're to reach out to the people and not to the special interests in order to be elected to come to this place.

So we're committed and we're going to stay committed. We believe the bill that we voted on in the House before and passed is the right one. So that's why we're here today to endorse the McCain-Feingold Shays-Meehan approach to campaign finance reform.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

TURNER: Well, that's fine. I mean, we just want to do our part. And we hope to help in any way we can to be sure Senators McCain and Feingold have the opportunity to pass the bill in the Senate.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Fortunately, for the visibility of this issue, there are a wealth of objective observers, ranging from people like Norm Ornstein, Fred Wertheimer and the New York Times, The Washington Post; a broad array of observers both on the right and left of the political spectrum. And they'll make the judgment, they'll tell the American people.

I mean, Americans would figure out a legalization of soft money, that's not too hard to figure out. And so, we're not worried about anything sneaking by. And if they're for reform, then they're for reform. If they're for legalizing soft money, in the kinds of numbers that Russ Feingold just talked about, then no one will be fooled.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: No, we haven't talked directly about this. We haven't talked directly about it because he has staked out a position here.

And obviously I'm in disagreement with it. So I would rather have agreeable conversations with him.

(LAUGHTER)

We're good friends.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Oh, I'd love to see an amendment that had both paycheck protection and stockholder protection in it. Someone's got to show me how you work the stockholder protection amendment out.

QUESTION: Are they poison pills?

MCCAIN: Oh, no. If they were together -- if they were together, no one would regard them as a poison pill. The paycheck protection by itself is clearly a poison pill, because look, neither one of those get at what the problem is. The problem is the bestowing of the money, not the taking of the money -- bestowing of it -- the million- dollar check. There was a fund-raiser that Al Gore had in New York, and a local union leader walked up, AFSCME, and handed him a check for $1 million.

Under our bill, he could hand him a check for $1,000, or perhaps if he got 10 friends together, $11,000. But you see, the banning of soft money stops that. That's why the paycheck protection provision is not relevant.

Look, if they bring a bill to the floor of the Senate tomorrow that's so-called paycheck protection, I'll vote for it in a New York minute. But it doesn't really affect what we're trying to achieve in the way of campaign finance reform.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Senator McCain, in the end, you want enactment, not just passage.

MCCAIN: Sure.

QUESTION: And to get enactment you need the president.

MCCAIN: There's such things as veto overrides.

QUESTION: Well, could you shed some light for us on the enactment strategy vis-a-vis the president?

MCCAIN: We want to work with the president. We want to work with all parties. We think that the time to probably negotiate would be after passage in the Senate, and perhaps the House, when it goes to conference. That would be a good time. That's when legislation is usually negotiated. Although we want to sit down and negotiate with them today -- today, we'd be glad to. But our first priority has got to be getting it through the United States Senate, so we're in a negotiating position.

But we have offered time after time to sit down and negotiate with anybody that wants to negotiate with us, and particularly the White House. We are hopeful we will reach a logical conclusion.

Yes?

QUESTION: I have a question for Mr. Shays. There are some in the Republican House who would rather not see this bill on the floor.

MCCAIN: Surprise.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

SHAYS: Well, first, this legislation has passed in two different Congresses by over 250 votes. And my general sense is that most of the leadership believes that there will be some campaign finance reform bill that passes, and I think that they believe that the public is more aware of this issue in large measure because of what John McCain did. I think they also realize there were a number of Republicans who won because of the active support of John McCain.

And so, what we as a unit have done -- Blue Dogs as well, because they were major proponents of getting the vote early-on in the first time and in the second -- is we said, "Let the Senate act first. And if the Senate's bill is a good bill, then we can take that up instead of taking our stronger bill."

But I will say this to you, if the Senate doesn't send us a bill, we are actively going to ask for a vote and hopefully have it done in the spring. And it will just sit out there for all to see that Republicans and Democrats alike worked in the House of Representatives, and the Democrats didn't back-track; that this bill is alive and well in the House, and I think that that becomes an open question what happens in the Senate.

BOYD: Could we do one more question here?

QUESTION: When the bill was in the Senate last time, pundits were saying that one of the problems was...

MCCAIN: The time it was in before, with the soft money, independent campaigns, free television time et cetera -- that...

QUESTION: Some of the pundits were saying that people (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: All those issues have been well-ventilated in the past. There was no opposition to them in the past, and in my view there shouldn't be now. But that's what Senate debate's all about. We look forward to those debates. But Shays-Meehan has had all of those provisions, and we had in the previous one.

And, by the way, we never had debate because we were not allowed to have debate. And we couldn't have debate until, guess what, we got the votes.

QUESTION: Do you think, sir, that the bill should stand alone entirely and if the court strikes down a provision of the bill, that the whole bill should go down?

MCCAIN: Absolutely not. The only reason that we had a law that came into effect in the 1970s was because there was a severability provision that allowed the United States Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo, to rule that a maximum spending limit was unconstitutional, but that contribution limits are constitutional.

It's a trick that some might want to use to tie this thing altogether, so that there's a possibility, yes. I think the soft money ban to the parties clearly is constitutional. I don't think there's any question. The Snowe-Jeffords provisions, I think they're constitutional, but I bet there'd be some dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court. If for any reason that went against us, the soft money ban to the parties should stand.

So we will fight hard. And our bill does provide for severability. And one of my concerns is that somebody might want a nice free ride here, tie it all together in a neat package, make sure something's not going to go, and then you don't have to deal with reform. So that's an important issue.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCAIN: Thousands of students are turning out to our town hall meetings. We hear letters all the time.

John Zogby, the pollster, briefed both Republican and Democrat senators in January. And he said Americans do care, and they care deeply. The reason why you don't see it high in the polls is they don't believe we'll clean up our own act.

Americans are concerned about integrity in government. They want the restoration of respect for the institutions of government. And they believe that the system is broken. So I'm very confident that we have great and significant support.

I just want to make one additional comment about this impact of this passage of this bill. 1974, the legislation was passed by Democrats, and it was viewed to be very harmful to Republicans because the Democrats passed it.

Look, nobody knows what the impact of this will be, except to suck whole -- take a whole lot of money that's washing around now in the political process out of it. That's the only thing we are sure of.

Yes, the Democrats have raised more soft money than hard money. Maybe that's because they haven't been focusing enough on it. They have union members who can be organized and galvanized also. And my Republican friends say, "Look. They can organize all these union members."

Well, what happens to our network? Why don't we galvanize our network of supporters and small business people and others?

Look, what this is going to do is return politics to the kind of conduct of campaigns to what it used to be. All through the '70s, all through the '80s, and into the '90s; the factory gates, the networks, the barbecues in people's homes, that's what we're going to see a return of.

Thanks very much.

ALLEN: John McCain, on his favorite topic, campaign finance reform, which comes up for debate next week in the Senate. He just got the go-ahead from 30-some odd Blue Dog conservative Democrats in the House. He stands with Russ Feingold, the co-sponsor of the bill.

And it looks like campaign finance reform gained some momentum today, but will it pass?

We have asked National Public Radio political editor Ken Rudin to join us with his thoughts.

Hi there, Ken.

KEN RUDIN, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO POLITICAL EDITOR: Hi, Natalie.

ALLEN: We heard Senator McCain allude to some who are running scared now. It seems that there are some Democrats on Capitol Hill who are flinching now that they realize that this is going to go forward.

RUDIN: Right, for six years -- Republicans, who have controlled Congress for six years, have basically filibustered the measure, so Democrats have always said, we stand for campaign finance reform, we support McCain-Feingold, we're right with you, McCain and Feingold, all the way. And now that the Republicans are no longer going to filibuster -- they're going to allow a vote and allow a debate -- many Democrats are getting cold feet, and that's why we had this press conference today.

ALLEN: And what's going to happen? Are they going to make it, perhaps -- those who oppose it -- ineffectual or maybe vote for other campaign finance reform? Is there any chance here that something meaningful for those who want campaign finance reform will happen?

RUDIN: Of course, it all depends on what you call meaningful. Perhaps what comes out of legislation, what is actually signed by President Bush, may not be meaningful according to McCain and Feingold, but there are many Democrats who say McCain-Feingold gets rid of all soft money, and we now have a parity. We're in a parity with the Republicans on soft money, so if we vote for this bill, it's going to hurt us in the end. And McCain-Feingold said, look, it's going to affect everybody the same way, we've got to get this passed.

But there are alternative measures. Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- apparently, President Bush may sign on to this -- wants to limit soft money contributions, not ban them outright, and perhaps raise the contribution limits. You know, Americans can only give $1,000 per campaign, and that's been on the books since 1974. The Hagel alternative wants to raise that. But again, McCain-Feingold says there will be so many loopholes in all these alternatives that are going to water them down and make them ineffectual.

ALLEN: But still, if someone came out and then voted for Hagel, they could still say to their constituents, back at home, I voted for campaign finance reforms.

RUDIN: Well, it's like Republicans when they had term-limit legislation. Republicans, for years, said they were for term limits, and then when they came into power they said, well, maybe term limits are not the greatest idea in world. So they had multiple votes on different term-limit packages, and Republicans voted -- well, I voted for this one, even though that didn't pass -- so they can go on record doing the same thing.

ALLEN: So which is the bigger debate coming up on Capitol Hill, Ken, if we can even put it that way: tax cut or campaign finance reform?

RUDIN: Well, they're both gigantic.

It's very interesting. McCain was in the House gallery. He wasn't talking to members of the public, really; he was talking to members of the Senate. When President Bush was in Plainfield and talking to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, he wasn't talking to folks in New Jersey, he was talking to the members of the Senate.

You know, you could ram a tax cut bill through the House because you have nine more Republicans than you do Democrats, and if all the Republicans vote with you, you have it passed. But with a 50/50 Senate, you have to go on these tours, you have to basically cajole and plead and bargain, and that's what both McCain and, maybe to a lesser extent than McCain, what President Bush is doing today, as well. ALLEN: Well, we'll talk with you again as the debate heats up and goes to the floor there on Capitol Hill. Ken Rudin of NPR, thanks.

RUDIN: Thanks, Natalie.

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