Campaign Finance Reform
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GWEN IFILL: Now, Brooks and Oliphant with analysis of the state of play in the Senate. That’s David Brooks of “The Weekly Standard,” and Tom Oliphant of “The Boston Globe.” David Brooks, today the vote was 84-16 — it seems pretty lopsided — to increase hard money limits. What does that tell us? How important is that for the life and health of this overall bill?
DAVID BROOKS: It’s still alive, and it’s still breathing. It’s like Odysseus heading home from Troy. You know, it’s survived the Hagel; it survived the hard money; it survived all these barriers; and it is still going on. And what that shows us is there a majority coalition that really, really wants campaign finance reform. Senator Thompson caved today – to Senator Feinstein. They had a negotiation between $2,500 and $2,000. Feinstein at $2,000 won, and he did it because he cares about the larger bill. And that’s happened all along this process, so we really are looking like we’re going to get something.
GWEN IFILL: Are we seeing as we look at the votes, Tom, as we look at these votes, one after the other after the other on these amendments, are we seeing coalitions forming or unforming?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, what still strikes me after what, a week, eight, nine days…
GWEN IFILL: It seems like weeks.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right … is the consistency of the coalition’s core. It appears still to be seven to ten Republicans that McCain and Feingold can count on and probably 48 Democrats. What happened today — I think we actually watched sausage being made today — is that each time one of these hurdles is cleared, I think it provides some momentum for the coalition when it comes up against the two end game scenarios that are still ahead and still very tough.
One is if the opponents want to do a filibuster at the end; 60 people haven’t actually voted to proceed to vote on the final passage of the bill; and secondly, this key test about whether to have the bill considered as a whole by the Supreme Court ultimately, or whether it can be looked at in pieces, that vote is still in doubt tonight. But the momentum for it increases every time you have one of these issues resolved.
GWEN IFILL: Do you agree with David that what happened today was Fred Thompson caved to Dianne Feinstein?
TOM OLIPHANT: Maybe put it – Dianne Feinstein is a former mayor and a former county supervisor. Fred Thompson is a former Washington lawyer and movie actor. It wasn’t really a fair fight on that basis. Also, I think she did have superior strength on the Senate floor.
The more important thing is not the individual contribution. The way this money is raised is in aggregates. You know, people give a lot of money that they parcel out around the country. The math here is so complicated, who knows what the right number is but it was, I think a difference between about $100,000 or so in the Feinstein case, more towards $200,000 in the Thompson case. The fact that it’s more like $100,000 means that this bill is not replacing soft money with hard money. And I think that is why it basically is still alive.
DAVID BROOKS: But what that little episode showed us was that Democrats are pure of heart. There is some theory that they want to appear to be for campaign finance reform but they really want to kill this bill secretly or some percentage of them, because it does help the Republicans, it is a Republican aiding bill. And if they wanted to take an opportunity to stick a shiv in the ribs surreptitiously, this was there chance. And they didn’t take it.
GWEN IFILL: But hard money still makes up the vast majority of the money that’s raised in campaigns. So how significant is it that hard money limits are raised even if in the end soft money is banned?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, again if you consider the aggregates, if you are going to real heavy hitters, say, no matter which party you are from for next year’s campaign, you’re basically still soliciting $100,000, I mean it’s actually $200,000 if you make it a couple for example, you are still talking about heavy big-time fundraising among very, very fat cats. But the reform is that you are taking almost $500 million out of the status quo. And the feeling clearly among the majority on the Senate floor right now is that it’s better than leaving it the way it is.
But what David brought up is I think still in doubt. And that is whether the commitment of certain key Democrats tomorrow and possibly Friday will really be there. I mean, there are a couple of members of Tom Daschle’s Democratic leadership, for example, who voted against this thing this afternoon. My eyes went immediately to Patty Murray, who is going to be running the Democratic Senate campaign committee next year, and John Kerry of Massachusetts is a public financing believer in part who is part of Daschle’s leadership team so I’m still not sure where they are.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about the momentum this week, the Hagel alternative that would have limited but not banned soft money was the great opera that was running underneath all of this — the great friend of John McCain who was going to be the guy who undercut them. And it really didn’t happen that way – big numbers.
DAVID BROOKS: It lost big and it was a sign of the strength of this coalition. I still think the major problem is going to be the severability issue, which is –
GWEN IFILL: Explain what that is.
DAVID BROOKS: It’s a horrible John Wayne Bobbitt word – but it has to do with whether, if the Supreme Court strikes down one provision of the law, does the whole bill go? And there are certain provisions which seem to me incredibly unconstitutional – not just unconstitutional. If three of us get together under this law, form an association we are not allowed to run an ad that mentions a candidate’s name 60 days before an election.
GWEN IFILL: That would be the Wellstone amendment?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that is what is now Wellstone, Schumer, Snowe -
GWEN IFILL: Whatever.
DAVID BROOKS: And that, that, you know, that seems to me, if that doesn’t abridge the first amendment nothing does. So there is some thought that if you can get rid of that, if that is struck down by the courts, then the whole thing goes. That will be the biggest hurdle.
TOM OLIPHANT: This is the only time McCain and Feingold have lost control of the floor was when the Wellstone proposal passed with the aid of Republican votes at the end. Mitch McConnell himself said it after the debate that that he was voting for something to make the bill – as he put it — a little more unconstitutional than he thinks it already is but there is no question that the Wellstone provision went contrary to existing Supreme Court decisions. That is not true of the rest of the prohibition.
GWEN IFILL: Does Mitch McConnell believe that is enough of a poison pill that if this bill were to actually survive in some form, get signed by the president, that he would be able to step back and know safely it would never stay law?
TOM OLIPHANT: He will be one of the plaintiffs in the constitutional test of this statute. He said so and you can take that to the bank.
DAVID BROOKS: They are, both sides say it’s a no-brainer – of course our side will win, but the Mitch McConnell side really believes that it’s not even close.
GWEN IFILL: So why even threaten or hold out the possibility of a filibuster –
TOM OLIPHANT: Because I think the constitutional argument is much more complex than that. I think the McCain-Feingold people have a good new ally this year on the floor of the Senate in Senator John Edwards of North Carolina who sort of has been making the constitutional case in opposition to McConnell. I haven’t the foggiest idea who is right on the law, but the debate has seemed to be much more even handed this year. And it’s interesting that it was Edwards who said flat out that this Wellstone proposal introduces poison into the bill.
GWEN IFILL: Do you see a filibuster happening?
DAVID BROOKS: Trent Lott’s attitude on this whole thing has been why are we wasting two weeks on this – nobody cares about it. I really think there will be some Republican pressure to move on to the budget and taxes.
GWEN IFILL: Speaking of Republican pressure, the president said yesterday: you do what you need to do and I’ll sign what I need to sign. Does that mean he is willing to sign a campaign finance reform bill?
TOM OLIPHANT: Why should he — if he vetoed as a beneficiary of public financing in a presidential election — vetoed reform in Congress that he had nothing to do with, I don’t see how he can stand alone politically. And I think that view inside the White House has gradually taken has ascended right now and it basically says you should sign what Congress sends you. Maybe you hope it doesn’t send you this, but if it does, I don’t see how he can avoid signing.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree — he would rather it was called the Feingold bill but McCain-Feingold –.
GWEN IFILL: But doesn’t that assume that there is enough public pressure, which Mitch McConnell says there is not, to make it politically untenable for him not to sign this bill or veto it?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think there is public pressure every way. I mean, nobody has ever lost an election on this issue. But watching this over the past two weeks, these Senators really have a lot invested in it, so that inside the beltway gain, a lot of people really want this to pass, including a lot of swing Senators. And if he doesn’t sign it, he may not anger the country, but he will anger these people who have gone through this incredible process that we’ve been watching.
GWEN IFILL: This is the week, I expected to see final votes, the Senate has its way with this, but given the momentum which you’ve seen, the amendments which you’ve seen, the poison pills which have been attached and rebuffed, what is your sense about what is going to happen to this bill –
TOM OLIPHANT: I don’t think the McCain-Feingold proponents have nailed down their majority on this severability issue tonight yet — and for that reason, all bets – this is a “Perils of Pauline” story that’s happening in full public view every day and on this one, I don’t they are there yet.
DAVID BROOKS: I had Odysseus – you have “Perils of Pauline” – soap opera — but you know, this gives Senators so much. They don’t have to worry about millionaires, the TV stations aren’t going to charge them so much. They don’t have to spend as much time at fund-raisers. This gives them all a lot regardless of their ideology and party. I still have to think they want it to pass.
GWEN IFILL: David, Tom, thank you both very much. We’ll talk about it again.