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Political Wrap

March 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, Shields and Gigot with analysis of the campaign finance reform debate and other political news of the week. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.

So, Paul, does this week one is down, is it moved McCain and Feingold closer to their ultimate goal which is to get the ban on soft money passed?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think it’s moving closer. The coalition has stayed together. They haven’t had the difficult amendments yet, the ones that really threaten Democratic votes. But it has surprisingly held together. We do know, we have learned, though, that the one thing there is a bipartisan majority for in the Senate is making life easier for Senators. With the two big amendments that passed, the only two major amendments that passed overwhelmingly are the ones that allowed members to spend more money which was opposite of the bill and the other one is stick it to the broadcasters, the networks, the commercial networks, I guess I should say for allowing them to charge a certain amount for ads. So there is an incumbent protection majority in the Senate. We know that.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Mark, the votes we’ve had this week show that the coalition is holding together or has the coalition really not been tested?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it has been tested. I would take exception of Paul’s analysis of incumbent protection. I mean, if we are talking about the status quo, that’s the greatest friend of incumbents. Over the last decade 95 percent of House members have been reelected…394 out of 400 in the last election – 90 percent of Senators. So I think the system as currently constructed has worked terribly well for incumbents and now we’re in an area of uncertainty. Margaret, what has impressed me the most from being up there and watching the debate is that for the first time in eons, Senators are actually on the floor. They’re legislating. They’re listening. I’m not saying this is the greatest moment since Mr. Smith comes to Washington. But this is an issue that obviously engages them. It’s one they have personal experience with.

MARGARET WARNER: Close to their heart.

MARK SHIELDS: It does, but they also have personal experience, and they’re not relying on staff. But they are listening. They are debating. And I think what has impressed people is the coalition has held I would say this week there’s a little mo, not big momentum but little mo. The reason they haven’t brought up the Hagel amendment….

MARGARET WARNER: The Hagel amendment being the one that would cap….

MARK SHIELDS: Chuck Hagel one of John McCain’s three closest friends in the Senate has a competing, limiting soft money, caps it but does not eliminate it. They don’t have the votes for it. The opponents do not have the votes right now but Paul is right. The real rubber hits the road this coming week when, in fact, the question of severability comes up that John McCain talked about in Kwame Holman’s piece.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we move to next week though, Paul, the conventional wisdom used to be one of the classic poison pill amendments would be something to limit the labor union’s ability to raise and spend money for political activities this. This week two or three or maybe four amendments designed to do that in different guises all went down sometimes by huge margins. What happened?

PAUL GIGOT: I always thought they would fail. It is a poison pill for Democrats. They would never support it. What happened is an attempt to peel off some Democrats. The Republicans tried to address one of their criticisms and said we’ll include corporate disclosure to shareholder money as well — to shareholders. And the Democrats didn’t peel off, but some Republicans did. So it went down to a crashing defeat. But I never thought that would pass because this is a center left coalition. I mean, this is mostly Democrats and a very small handful of Republicans. And McCain is trying to keep that coalition in tact.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, explain something else. Tom Daschle today, there is talk there might be a compromise that hard money limits, the regulated ones you have to register could be raised in return for reducing or eliminating soft money. Tom Daschle said today, we just ran the quote, he wouldn’t go for tripling the hard money limits. What is happening there?

PAUL GIGOT: The simple answer to that is that Democrats feel Republicans have an advantage and they’re probably right in hard money. But just a little history — in 1974 when this first campaign finance reform passed, the limit was imposed at $1,000 because people thought that that wasn’t corruption. That wasn’t a corrupt amount. If you just adjust it for inflation in the intervening years, it would be worth about – that $1,000 — $3300. So tripling the amount is hardly some great vast increase but the truth right now is that Democrats feel they can’t have– they don’t have the same number of $3,000 donors and they’re going to lose Democrats and Democrats will be blamed for killing the bill.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see this playing out?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s an accurate appraisal — that there is a fear that the coalition will come unraveled if they go over $2,000. $2,000 is sort of the magic number.

MARGARET WARNER: They can double but they can’t triple.

MARK SHIELDS: Just so our listeners understand, Margaret, right now, under the law I can give you if you’re a candidate for the Senate, $1,000. That’s hard money. That’s all I can I give you as an individual to an individual. I can give hundreds of thousand dollars to the Margaret Warner for the Senate Committee. What we’re talking about is eliminating that and maybe increasing that to $2,000 that an individual could give you. As far as, you asked the question and good question it was, about the poison pill, one of the reasons that it ceases to be important, the labor union, if you eliminate soft money, you’ve eliminated labor’s major playing field in this election. I mean– they’re the ones that stand to lose most heartily. That’s why quite frankly the poison pill was, you know, important.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think is the biggest, just the one biggest potential poison pill next week?

MARK SHIELDS: The biggest one is whether the Democrats who have voted for this when they knew it wasn’t going to pass. John McCain talked about severability. That’s very simple — We have a bill that’s going to pass but we want to sabotage it. So we stick in an amendment that requires school prayer in every school in America. Okay. Everybody votes for it. If it’s part of the bill and that is not severed, it goes down, the whole bill goes with it. What they want to do is add some amendment, the opponents do, that goes to the Supreme Court and the whole thing sinks. That will be the fight. Watch Democrats if they try to sneak over on the severability issue.

PAUL GIGOT: Gigot: A lot of people think this bill doesn’t need an amendment to sink in part in the Supreme Court. The AFL-CIO no less thinks a good part of it is actually unconstitutional. That’s why they oppose some of it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you about another topic. Yesterday the White House announced that they would no longer go to the American Bar Association and let them pre-screen judicial nominees, nominees for the federal bench. Conservatives have wanted this for a long time. Big victory for them?

PAUL GIGOT: Sure. I don’t know how big it is but it is a victory. It reflects the change in the Republican party and the legal community since it was first, the ABA was first called upon by Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican President, in the early 1950s. He brought the ABA into the process because most lawyers then were a lot of white shoe, corporate attorneys who voted Republican. What’s happened is the Republican party has gotten more conservative, less white shoe lawyer, more populist. A lot of the lawyer, legal community, has moved left, Democratic. And the ABA, in particular, I think in the eyes of many Republicans, has become a liberal interest group and they don’t want them vetting their nominees, particularly with the experiences of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas where they damaged their nominees.

MARK SHIELDS: As far as the populist Republican Party, I’ll look forward for them coming out for worker safety standards – and beefing up OSHA —


MARK SHIELDS: ABA more populist than Daddy Warbucks.


MARK SHIELDS: Mistake made. The ABA provided not only a very useful vehicle for Presidents. I mean you could screen out embarrassing potential nominees before….

MARGARET WARNER: Before their names were public.

MARK SHIELDS: Didn’t embarrass the nominee – didn’t embarrass the President. The President could use it as an effective means of not nominating some people who could be embarrassing. And as far as Clarence Thomas is concerned there was nothing ideological about him. Fifteen across the board Democrats and Republicans all voted qualified. There was an ideological decision made on Bork and I think the ABA paid for it and that’s what the revenge is about and it is a short sighted move on the part of the administration.

PAUL GIGOT: I think two members of the ABA standing committee said Justice Thomas was not qualified. If I remember correctly.

MARGARET WARNER: Aren’t the Democrats on the Hill and the Senate saying they won’t consider a nominee or vote on one until they hear from the ABA?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re saying they want that ABA stamp of approval, which is a way of –

PAUL GIGOT: The protesters give away the game. I mean, the people who are criticizing the President and the administration are the same people, Pat Leahy, the ranking member of the judiciary committee and the New York Times and so on are not going to like the judges that President Bush sends up anyway.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally before we go tonight, one of the most enduring figures in our business columnist Roland Evans died this afternoon. Your thoughts, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Rollie Evans was a giant. There truly will be a lonely place against this guy. He and Robert Novak co-authored the longest running joint byline column in the history of American journalism. He was a tireless reporter, he was relentless, he was always working as you know, I know, everybody who ever saw him work. And his– he will be missed. And he made that transition from print to television. He was a colleague on CNN on a show together, always a generous and helpful colleague — and as devoted a husband as I know to his widow Kay. We send our best.

PAUL GIGOT: Puts a lot of modern day columnists to shame because he believed and understood and worked understanding that you can’t just have opinions. You’ve got to– he understood the persuasive power of facts, even for a columnist, even for a guy who is on a soap box. And he always was working around town. You could see him in this restaurant, in this bar, in this squash court, working his sources, and, you know, throughout the Cold War, really was one of the premier foreign policy correspondents in Washington.

MARGARET WARNER: Roland Evans, colleague and friend, we’ll miss him. Thank you both.