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Special Event

John McCain Opens Senate Debate on Campaign Finance Reform

Aired March 19, 2001 - 1:01 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Declaring that the current system is nothing more than legalized bribery, supporters of campaign finance reform are ready to argue their case on Capitol Hill. The Senate is scheduled to begin its long-awaited campaign finance debate sometime in this hour.

The focal point is a plan authored by Republican John McCain, of course, and his Democratic colleague Russ Feingold. It would restrict political spending and ban so-called soft money contributions funneled through the political parties. It also would limit political advertising by independent groups and require those groups to disclose their backers.

A counterproposal by Senator Chuck Hagel would put limits on soft money instead of banning it.

The debate is scheduled to run for two weeks and one Senate leader predicts it will be a real free-for-all.

CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl will be watching. He joins us now from Capitol Hill with a preview of the battle ahead -- Jonathan.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, free-for- all is exactly right, and I think it would be more than just one Senate leader that would agree with that.

As a matter of fact, Senator Trent Lott, talking to reporters earlier today, said that this will start with a jump ball, and he admitted this is one of the few cases where we get to the Senate floor discussing a pivotal issue where nobody really knows what the outcome is going to be.

There are very few ground rules on this, except the one ground rule that there will be debates every three hours and votes on those debates -- votes on amendments every three hours. This will be going on in a way that nobody can really predict.

Earlier today, Senators Russ Feingold and John McCain took their campaign for this over to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. They actually marched from the capitol over to these two headquarters to make the case for their call for limiting so-called soft money donations to the parties. Here's what Russ Feingold had to say when they got to the steps of the Democratic National Committee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), WISCONSIN: Unfortunately, the party of the people is now engaged in raising hundred-thousand, five-hundred- thousand, million-dollar contributions from corporations, unions, and individuals. This is not why I become a Democrat, and it is not the future of the Democratic Party.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KARL: Now, on the other side, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel has another proposal that contradicts what McCain and Feingold are trying to do. What they would do -- instead of banning this unregulated soft money, Chuck Hagel and most of the Republicans who support him would limit the soft money donations to $60,000 a year from corporations, unions, or from individuals.

Now Chuck Hagel is out here standing opposed to McCain, but he's also one of McCain's closest friends and political allies in the Senate. Here's what Chuck Hagel had to say earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: I introduced my bill in October of 1999. When I introduced that bill, I was co-chairman of John McCain's presidential campaign committee. So any of the Shakespearian drama that we -- we love so much in this town about me being used by the White House or George Bush, of course, is complete nonsense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KARL: Now the debate is just now getting underway.

If you look now on the Senate floor, you will see that Mitch McConnell, the Republican senator from Kentucky, who has been leading the campaign against what McCain-Feingold are trying to do, is on the floor right now. I think we can see some pictures of that.

Actually, there is Chris Dodd who is on the Democratic side now speaking. Now Chris Dodd will be managing the bill, in Senate lingo here, for McCain and Feingold because he is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee. He will be the person managing the debate on that side.

There is Senator Harry Reid. He is the number two Democrat in the Senate, also somebody very strongly in favor of the McCain- Feingold bill.

Back to you, Lou.

WATERS: Jon, when we watch this unfold, what nuances do we watch for? We know there are a great number of politicians who say they're for campaign finance reform, but they don't necessarily want their money taken away for them.

KARL: Well, what's going to make this debate so interesting, Lou, is watching this whole process of amendments. Every three hours, there will be another amendment debated on the floor of the Senate for the next two weeks.

What this means is you're going to be seeing all kinds of different ideas for campaign finance reform. Senator Lott, speaking earlier today, said that there are a hundred different senators and a hundred different versions of exactly what campaign finance reform is.

One thing to watch in terms of nuance, Lou, is looking at proposals, amendments that will be offered where -- that the majority of the Senators may support, but that ultimately may end up making it impossible to pass McCain-Feingold. For instance, you may have a situation where Republican opponents of the bill would offer a major increase in terms of hard money donations, and that will pass because Republicans will support it.

But the question is when we get to a final vote on McCain- Feingold, will there be enough Democrats that will go along with that. This is going to be a very interesting and unpredictable process -- Lou.

WATERS: All right. Jonathan Karl.

The process has begun. The Senate debate on the floor has begun, and look who is arguing now before the Senate, one of the co-authors of the McCain-Feingold bill, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Let's listen to what he has to say.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: ... we should substantially reform our campaign finance laws. I want to thank Senators Lott and Daschle for their commitment to allowing a fair and open debate and for their assurance that the Senate will be allowed to exercise its will on this matter and vote on the legislation that emerges at the end of the amendment process.

I want to thank, as well, Senator McConnell, our steadfast and all-too-capable opponent, who honestly and bravely defends his belief, for agreeing to the terms of this debate, a debate that we hope may settle many of the questions held by advocates and opponents of reform that have yet to be resolved by this body.

I, of course, want to thank them from the bottom of my heart, all the cosponsors of this legislation for their steadfast support and to proving to be far more able and persuasive advocates of our cause than I have had the skill to be.

Most particularly, I want to thank my partner in this long endeavor, Senator Russ Feingold, a man of rare courage and decency, who has risked his own career and ambitions for the sake of his principles.

To me, Madam President, that seems a pretty good definition of patriotism.

I want to thank the president of the United States for engaging in this debate and for his oft-stated willingness to seek a fair resolution of our differences on this issue for the purpose of providing the people we serve greater confidence in the integrity of their public institutions.

Too often as this debate approached, our differences on this issue have been viewed as an extension of our former rivalry. I regret that very much, for he is not my rival. He is my president, and he retains my confidence that the country we love will be a better place because of his leadership.

Lastly, Madam President, I wish to thank every member of the Senate, especially Senator Hagel, my friend yesterday, my friend today, my friend tomorrow, for the cooperation allowing this debate to occur so early in what will surely be one of the busier congressional sessions in recent memory.

I thank all of my colleagues for their patience, a patience that has been tried by my own numerous faults far too often, as I beg their indulgence again. Please accept my assurance that, no matter our various difference on this issue and my own failings in arguing those differences, my purpose is limited solely to enacting those reforms that we believe are necessary to defend the government's public trust and not to seek a personal advantage at any colleague's expense.

I sincerely hope that our debate, contentious though it will be, will also be free of acrimony and rancor and that the quality of our deliberations will impress the public as evidence of the good faith that sustains our resolve.

Madam President, the many sponsors of this legislation have but one purpose: to enact fair, bipartisan campaign finance reform that seeks no special advantage for one party or another, but that helps change the public's widespread belief that politicians have no greater purpose than their own reelection and to that end we will respond disproportionately to the needs of those interests that can best finance our ambition, even if those interests conflict with the public interest and with the governing philosophy we once sought office to advance.

The sad truth is, Madam President, that most Americans do believe that we conspire to hold on to every single political advantage we have lest we jeopardize our incumbency by a single lost vote. Most Americans believe that we would let this nation pay any price, bear any burden for the sake of securing our own ambitions, no matter how injurious the effect might be to the national interest.

And who can blame them? As long as the wealthiest Americans and richest organized interests can make the six- and seven-figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power that such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician's claim of patriotism.

The opponents of reform will ask: If the public so distrusts us and so dislikes our current campaign finance system, why is there no great cry in the country to throw us all out of office? They will contend -- and this point is disputable -- that no one has ever lost or won an election because of their opposition to or support for campaign finance reform.

Yet public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majorities of our constituents want reform and believe our current system of campaign financing is terribly harmful to the public good.

But, the opponents observe, they do not rank reform among the national priorities they expect their government to urgently address. That is true, Madam President, but why is it so?

Simply put, they don't believe it will ever be done, they don't expect us to adopt real reforms, and they defensively keep their hopes from being raised and their inevitable disappointment from being worse.

The public just doesn't believe that either an incumbent opposing reform or a challenger supporting it will honestly work to repair this system once he or she has been elected under the rules, or lack thereof, that govern it. They distrust both. They believe that whether we publicly advocate or oppose reform, we are all working, either openly or deceitfully, to prevent even the slightest repair of a system that they believe is corrupt.

WATERS: John McCain firing the opening shot in the Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

"It's time to end the tyranny of money and politics," McCain and Feingold said earlier today in their tour of Republican and Democratic Party headquarters in Washington. You're going to be hearing over the next couple of weeks a lot about campaign finance reform.

We have CNN's Jeanne Meserve joining us now in Washington with more about all of this -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Lou, let's not forget that there is another player in all of that, and that is the president, George W. Bush.

Joining me now is Candy Crowley, our political correspondent.

Candy, what does the president want out of this?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The president wants to get out of this politically no harm, no foul.

I mean, the mix has changed here. It used to be that the Republicans are the ones seen in the Senate as standing in the way of campaign finance reform. But now there's a president in the White House who can be a final backstop. So the Republican stance has changed because now... MESERVE: It's softened.

CROWLEY: ... and softened.

You now hear Democrats saying, "Well, I don't know. Maybe we don't really want this." So the -- this whole process and the dynamic have changed.

So what they most want, Republicans, including this president, is to get out of this with something they could support and without looking like the opponents.

MESERVE: And on the Democratic side, things have changed as well?

CROWLEY: Well, they've changed what -- a couple of things. First of all, in the last election, they were a lot better at raising soft money. And, second of all, Republicans were a lot better at raising hard money, which will remain legal.

So the worry here is that the playing field will really be -- tilt toward the Republicans if they go ahead with a full ban on soft money.

MESERVE: Trent Lott said earlier this is going to be like a jump ball. They're going to throw it up and see what happens in the U.S. Senate. How often does that happen?

CROWLEY: Not very often. I mean -- now there will always -- you know, everyone said the only rule in the Senate is there are no rules, but the fact of the matter is they always come to the floor with a very definite way that things will be handled.

Now all we know is that, every three hours, they're going to have a vote on some amendment, but they don't know the order. It seems to me that this is chaos with -- with a real purpose here because the more those amendments build up and get tacked onto a bill, the more people fall off or join in.

And so what you're going to see is not people going in and saying, "Well, we've got 52 votes for it and 48 against it," but we're going to see it change as we go along. The dynamic just changes with each amendment.

MESERVE: Candy Crowley, thanks so much for your insight.

And, once again, the Senate taking up campaign finance at long last. We'll be watching carefully to see what they do.

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