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Special Event

McCain, Feingold Hold News Conference On Campaign Finance

Aired March 19, 2001 - 10:32 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We've some breaking news. I want to get to Jeanne Meserve with more on campaign finance -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And Daryn, we're going to go right up to Capitol Hill. John McCain, Senator John McCain is speaking outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Let's listen in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator McCain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Down here.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Oh, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch your step.

MESERVE: Here's Senator Russ Feingold speaking first. Let's listen to him.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: The RNC first and now we're at the Democratic National Committee where, unfortunately, the party of the people is now engaged in raising $100,000 $500,000, $1 million contributions from corporations, unions and individuals. This is not why I became a Democrat, and it is not the future of the Democratic Party.

So we need to get rid of the soft money system and I am pleased, and I believe just about every member of my Democratic Caucus will be with us on the key votes, and that has to happen for reform to occur -- John.

MCCAIN: We came to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee to send one message: that these parties are the parties of the people, not the parties of the special interests which they have become, and we hope that every Republican and Democrat will see the need to return the government to the people of this country and take it out of the hands of the big money special interests.

QUESTION: Senator Feingold, you say this is a real test for Democrats. In what way? FEINGOLD: It's the truth test. Every Democrat in the Caucus has said on one occasion or another that they're for banning soft money, that they're for the McCain-Feingold bill, that they think we ought to do something about phony issue ads.

I believe what Senator Daschle has said -- and he made very excellent statements over the weekend -- that he knows that we should do more campaign finance, but he said that we should at least do this. I think under his leadership, we will be able to pass the truth test on campaign finance reform.

QUESTION: But three or four Democrats seem to be having second thoughts.

FEINGOLD: Well, second thoughts are fine. It's how you vote.

QUESTION: What do you think that they're saying behind you, Senator?

FEINGOLD: Well, they say it to my face. They say they're worried. Look, every politician, when you take $500 million out of the system, is going to at least blink. You wonder what is going to happen to you.

Most of us came into this job not even knowing what soft money was. So when you start taking it out of the system, everybody wonders what the consequences are. That's fine, and everybody should go through that thought process.

But in the end, to have voted, as John as pointed out, five or six times for banning party soft money and then reversing would be an awfully hard vote for a Democratic senator to explain back home.

QUESTION: Senator McCain, what is the biggest threat to final passage here? You say you have a gentleman's agreement on filibuster. Is the biggest threat added amendments, a White House veto -- what is the biggest threat?

MCCAIN: The biggest threat is that Russ Feingold and I do not have 51 votes to prevent us from moving on to other legislation. That's the biggest threats.

In other words...

FEINGOLD: If we didn't.

MCCAIN: In other words, if you go through an amending process and it starts -- which is their strategy, that it starts peeling off senators because they defeat our passage of amendments, and then we would lose below 51. Because as long as we hold 51, then we can prevent movement on to other legislation. You see what I mean?

Does anybody understand that besides Russ?

(LAUGHTER)

OK.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Senator, what are the odds that when something passes, it will remotely resemble what the both of you have proposed?

MCCAIN: Oh, wait, the fundamentals, we'd have to pass -- you know, we're eager to hear tightening of disclosure, addressing the millionaire situation and many others.

But the fundamentals of McCain-Feingold -- soft money and independent expenditures, independent campaigns -- will be a fundamental part of it, if it passes. And I'm optimistic, but not -- look, we recognize we're asking incumbents to vote to change a system that keeps incumbents in office. And every special interest in this town that uses money in order to buy access and influence is apoplectic about the prospect of using that influence.

FEINGOLD: This is a modest, bottom line bill. We are not interested in reshaping or reforming soft money. We're interested in getting rid of it.

MCCAIN: There are some great Americans up there, we're proud of them.

(LAUGHTER)

God bless you.

Send back the checks, guys.

(LAUGHTER)

FEINGOLD: OK. Thanks a lot.

QUESTION: What about expanding the base of those small donors? A lot people are saying the Republicans just have this natural advantage, a lot of people who are willing to give smaller amounts.

MCCAIN: I can only quote Senator Daschle, who said that, "We can win." They believe -- I don't agree with him-- but they believe they can win the battle of ideas and win the support of the small donors as well. I think that's where the battleground should be.

FEINGOLD: We've done it in the past. When I came here in 1992, there were 57 Democratic senators and hardly any soft money. I liked that better.

MCCAIN: OK. Thanks. Thanks very much. Thank you.

MESERVE: And there you have some remarks by Senators John McCain and Russ Fiengold. Joining them, Granny D., that campaign reform advocate. All of them on the front steps of the Democratic National Committee here in Washington.

This afternoon kicks off the debate on McCain-Feingold bill which would ban soft money contributions. They acknowledge in their remarks here that the biggest threat are amendments. There are scores of them expected.

What they are afraid is that those amendments will peel off their support. Right now, they have the votes they need to keep this debate going. They're afraid, McCain said, that they will go under that magic number of 51.

Russ Feingold, the Democrat in this pair, saying that this legislation is a truth test for Democratic members of the Senate. Many of them have said in the past that they support a ban on soft money. But of course, incumbent politicians are a little bit reluctant to change a system which benefits them.

Daryn, back to you.

KAGAN: Jeanne Meserve in Washington, Jeanne, thank you so much.

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