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Special Event

Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold Prepare for Debate on Campaign Finance Reform

Aired March 19, 2001 - 10:00 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Taking stock in the status quo, Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain holding a news conference this hour. He is kicking off Capitol Hill debate on a most volatile political issue and that would be campaign finance reform.

We're going to start this hour with an issue that is rumbling to life on Capitol Hill, looming ominously over law makers who must debate its merits. The issue, campaign finance reform, and idea popular with voters and potentially hazardous to the political figures of those will decide its fate.

Let's go now to our Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow. She is on Capitol Hill -- Kate.

KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, good morning.

As far as the chances for campaign finance reform this year, well, they appear to be pretty good. All of the key players are optimistic about this, Senator McCain saying that he thinks there's about a 60 percent chance that his version of campaign finance reform will pass the Senate this year and will make its way to the President.

His colleague, Senator Russ Feingold, the co-sponsor, saying that he gives it about a 50-50 chance. Of course, 50-50 is exactly what the split is right now in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, Senator McCain saying that he thinks that there is broad support from Democrats and that he'll get about 10 of those Republicans to vote along with him.

Now, here's what his bill would do. The main point of the McCain-Feingold-Cochran bill is that it would ban soft money. That's unlimited donations to political parties. Number two, it would restrict political ads run by independent groups and it would require greater disclosure about political contributions.

Now, not all Democrats support all of those provisions. In fact, one key Democrat, Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, a centrist, has already come out and said that he doesn't, no longer supports the McCain-Feingold legislation. He says that banning soft money, he thinks, is going to restrict Democrats more than it's going to hurt Republicans and so he supports another proposal that's out there by Senator... KAGAN: OK, we -- I'm sorry. We need to go and interrupt Kate Snow because here is Senator John McCain beginning that news conference we were talking about. Here's Senator McCain on Capitol Hill.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: ... McCain-Feingold and lost. Maybe it'll change our, maybe it'll change our luck. And we promised you that we would have fun during this effort, as we've been having as we've been traveling all over this country and having town hall meetings in depressed areas such as New Orleans, Louisiana and San Francisco, California.

But we thought we would do something different today, so we will, and that is we're going to take a little walk and we hope you'll all come with us as we go down to render our comments in front of the Republican National Committee and the Democrat National Committee.

QUESTION: Can you take one question?

MCCAIN: And we're out -- I can't do it. We're going to -- otherwise we would break Russ's solemn promise

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: And I need the exercise, too.

MCCAIN: He does. Of course, he's getting out of shape. It's terrible. OK. Here we go.

QUESTION: We're going to go down the east front steps of the Capitol so can we just meet you at the bottom?

KAGAN: All right, it looks like they're trying to do a little different tack, Senator John McCain of Arizona, instead of giving a traditional news conference there on Capitol Hill on this day when the Senate will start debate on his campaign finance reform bill, it looks like they're going to take it to the steps of the Capitol.

Kate, any idea why they plan to do that? What is it that they're trying to achieve?

SNOW: I think this is a last minute decision and a bit of a political show for the cameras, Daryn. What I understand they're going to do is they're going to take the message on the road. They're going over to the Democratic Congressional campaign headquarters and then they're going to go over to the Republican headquarters in an effort to show exactly what they want to accomplish here, Senator McCain trying to illustrate what he wants to do for campaign finance reform.

You know, he's kicking off two weeks of debate up here on Capitol Hill. He knows that he needs to win support both here on the Hill and beyond in order to influence those Senators. I mentioned that he thinks he has about 10 Republicans supporting him now. Will that be enough, though, is the question because he may not have every single Democrat. And the Senate, of course, split 50-50. So it's going to be a tough road for him and they're just trying to build as much momentum as they can to try to get their form of the legislation through -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Kate Snow on Capitol Hill, as we see Senator McCain take off with Senator Feingold.

Let's go now to Jeanne Meserve in Washington. Jeanne, we had heard that today's debate was going to be lively. It looks like even before the debate begins things are getting interesting on Capitol Hill.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. You know, Senator McCain is a master of creating publicity. You'll remember the straight talk express that took his presidential campaign across the country led to a victory in the New Hampshire primary. This guy knows how to get attention.

Today, he is taking this argument right to the people who will be affected, the Republican and Democratic National Committees. That is where the soft money contributions go. They come from corporations and unions and wealthy individuals right there. They're supposed to be used for party building but what McCain says is then what happens is that this money is spent largely on issue advertising, which benefits a particular candidate. And so the Senator striking out here with a very bold stroke a couple hours before the Senate debate begins -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Jeanne, their toughest fight for Senators McCain and Feingold might not be in the Senate, but actually in the courts. What about those that say the bill as it now stands actually is a violation of free speech?

MESERVE: There are significant concerns about First Amendment rights. You hear a lot from that, particularly from Senator Mitch McConnell. He is the primary Republican opponent on all of this and a very strong player on Capitol Hill. You also hear about it from Chuck Hagel. He is sponsoring alternative legislation. Here's what he had to say this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: What must be protected are the rights of the First Amendment. People do have a right in this country, organizations, individuals, to express themselves and this nonsense about money doesn't have anything to do with that, well, of course, it does.

Yes, we have an amendment called the First Amendment that protects individual rights of free speech, but if you don't have the resources to get your point across on television or radio or whatever medium, then what good is that free speech? So it is connected.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: So what you can anticipate is that if legislation passes, there will, indeed, be court challenges.

And by the way, we have cameras following Senator McCain to Republican and Democratic National Committee headquarters. We hope to bring you some of that in a little while -- Daryn, back to you.

KAGAN: OK, we will be looking for that. Jeanne Meserve in Washington, thank you.

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