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Money Politics

February 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: The authors of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance overhaul bill, Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays and Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan, savored sweet victory this morning after seeing their bill pass a few hours earlier.

They celebrated with the Senate creators of the legislation: Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, whom McCain enlisted for help on the issue when Feingold arrived in the Senate nine years ago.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: There are only two things that I am certain of right now, and that is that I am Feingold, and the other is that we won last night, and what a thrill it was!

SEN. HOYER: We stand here with an amendment that says we ought to have a ban on soft money tomorrow – today. Today is tomorrow, my friend from Massachusetts tells me.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was very early this morning when Shays-Meehan supporters in the House of Representatives safely maneuvered through the last of a minefield of so-called “poison pill and spoiler-substitute amendments” to a final victorious vote.

In the end, 240 members, 198 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and one independent joined to approve Shays-Meehan.

The Shays-Meehan bill would ban soft money, unregulated, unlimited contributions given to national political parties by corporations, unions, and individuals. But limited soft money contributions still could go to state or local parties for voter registration and “get out the vote” efforts.

Shays-Meehan also would prohibit advocacy groups from using soft money to broadcast ads that identify a federal candidate within 60 days of an election. The bill would take effect November 6th, the day after this year’s federal election.

The legislation now returns to the Senate, where Democrats like those in the House overwhelmingly support the campaign finance bill. This afternoon Majority Leader Tom Daschle praised the House vote.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE: We are very, very appreciative of the tremendous work done by so many of our colleagues, I mean, outside and are very pleased now that we are at a point where hopefully we can take this to – to the Senate floor and then send it off to the President.

KWAME HOLMAN: Daschle then requested unanimous consent of his colleagues to bring up the campaign bill. As expected, a Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, objected.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: And we’ve got people on my side of this issue who did not prevail in the House yesterday who would like to have an adequate time to read the legislation. Fortunately, we’re not in session next week, which gives everybody on both sides an opportunity to look at the fine print.

KWAME HOLMAN: In turn, Daschle said he will try again to get Senators to agree to take up Shays-Meehan when Congress returns from the week-long Presidents’ Day break that begins Monday. President Bush has indicated he’ll sign whatever campaign overhaul bill Congress approves.

MARGARET WARNER: So what happens next? For that, we turn to two key Senate players you just saw in Kwame’s report: Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, cosponsor of the campaign finance bill passed by the Senate last April; and Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of its chief opponents.

So Senator Feingold, beginning with you, what are your expectations now? How soon do you think you can get this bill to the floor of the Senate?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, we received last night a wonderful valentine, a bipartisan valentine from the House of Representatives to the American people. Since the Senate has already passed this almost-identical bill by a vote of 59-41, I’m hoping that the body will take it up very quickly as soon as it gets here, and it will pass this ban on these unlimited soft money contributions by corporations and unions and individuals. There is the possibility of procedural barriers, but I think the train is clearly moving in the right direction.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator McConnell, are you going to put up any procedural barriers?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, that really remains to be seen. First I want to congratulate my friend, Russ Feingold. I think it was a remarkable victory after many years of work on this over in the House yesterday, but let me say this, Margaret.

This was a bill that is different from the Senate-passed bill. It was produced late at night, previous night. We are today having the best lawyers in town who understand these issues reading the bill carefully, which is not an inappropriate thing to do before agreeing to passage.

And I think once we are absolutely certain what’s in the bill, that will determine the strategy as to whether or not there would be an effort to force it into conference or to send it on down to the President. Fortunately we’re out of session next week, and it gives adequate time for us to make that decision about what the strategy will be once we return.

MARGARET WARNER: But it sounds as if you’re not ready to agree with Senator McCain, who said today these are virtually…”basically the same bill,” is the way he put it.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, it’s not basically the same, but somehow it is actually better than the bill that left the Senate. For example, one of the things that I have advocated over the last 15 years is an increase in hard money limits. Both the candidates and the parties are operating under a contribution limit set back in 1974, when a Mustang cost $2,700.

One of the really good things in this bill is that it increases what an individual can give in hard money, the so-called good money — to $95,000 over a two-year period; increases the individual contributions to candidates, doubles them from $1,000 to $2,000, also increases significantly the amount of hard dollars that an individual can give to a party. All of that is very good.

There are other parts of the bill that are clearly troubling. I don’t think anybody believes that the restrictions on outside advertising within 60 days of an election is going to be upheld by a court. This precise language has been struck down before. You shouldn’t have to register with the federal government and raise hard money in order to say unpleasant things about people like Russ and myself in proximity to an election.

Even though we would like that, that’s clearly unconstitutional, and I think that provision will be struck down. And if this comes to law, I will be going to court with others to contest parts of it we think are unconstitutional.

MARGARET WARNER: But let me just ask you — earlier reports had you threatening a filibuster. Are you —

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: That was for the purpose of getting a conference– as to whether or not we need a conference, it depends on what’s in the bill. As I’ve said to Russ and John McCain and others, and the press all day today, we are in the process of reading it because this is real bullets.

This is a bill that the proponents would like not to be conferenced and to go straight to the President. So before signing off on that, we like to know exactly what it does. And frequently the devil is in the details, so fortunately we have time here to look at it before we decide whether we should try to force it into conference or send it on down to the President.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Feingold, how do you read…

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: — graciousness — In effect, he’s not saying he’s going to filibuster it, which I think is very important and very different. He’s not saying necessarily that we have to have a conference committee and I give him credit for that. There’s nothing wrong with reviewing the bill for the next week.

The fact is the two bills are not really different in any significant respect. We didn’t choose to decide for the House and Senate that they should raise the hard money limit from $1,000 to $2,000 because we didn’t think it was our business; we thought that was the job of the House. And it’s really a trivial difference people would have expected to happen. With regard to these ads that Senator McConnell mentions, I guarantee you no bill would have gotten through the Senate or House if we actually banned any ads. Of course we don’t.

All we do is say that the people who run those sorts of ads, the phony issue ads, in the last 60 days before an election have to follow the same rules that everybody else does who participates in the electoral process. Not a single ad is banned or prohibited by the McCain-Feingold/Shay-Meehan bill.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Feingold, supporters in the House said they believed that the Enron scandal really gave new life to their push there and helped them. Do you think it’s going to have an impact on the vote when the Senate essentially revotes on this?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Well, I think we’re in a position to win this in any event. We carefully built this, brick by brick, over seven years, but I would have to be less than honest if I didn’t admit that things like the Chinese money in 1996, the questions about the presidential pardons last year, and now the Enron scandal are the kinds of things that have illustrated what’s wrong.

When Senators and Congressmen are asking corporations and unions and individuals for $100,000, $500,000 or $1 million, it’s inherently corrupt, and I think what Enron did is sort of shine the final light on the House and on the Senate so that no dirty tricks could be played at the last minute and we’ve got the will of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: I guess what I’m asking you is, you could – you got 59 votes last April. Do you think you might get more?

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Yes, I do. The 59 votes were for passage of the bill. I believe there are more for passage of the bill now in part because of the view of corporate abuse of this through the Enron scandal, but also I think that we have the ability to have even more votes, if there is any need on procedural votes. So I think we may get an even stronger vote if comes to that.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Margaret, if I may?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, Senator McConnell, please.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Yeah if I may, soft money had about as much to do with Enron’s collapse as Martha Stewart had to do with Kmart’s collapse. But Russ and his allies have very smartly used these scandals– in this case a corporate scandal– to promote the passage of this legislation.

I agree with him-I think it probably, in the end, didn’t have a whole lot of impact on the outcome. They had cleared the Senate, which was their biggest hurdle, last year. This had always, in a similar form, passed the House. So I think the big victory for Russ and for John McCain on this issue is actually last year when it cleared the Senate.

Nevertheless, what’s different as the Senate takes it up nine days from now is that this is not just a bill; this is something on the way to becoming law if it leaves the Senate. That’s why reading the bill, finding out what impact it has on my party, for example, is very important. If we conclude, Margaret, that this is unfairly tilted against the Republican Party, I guarantee you there will be 41 Republicans in the Senate who will insist on a conference. But we’re going to wait and see. And that decision will be made sometime over the next week.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator McConnell, the President’s attitude has been described as noncommittal — that is Ari Fleischer’s attitude today was noncommittal. He certainly hasn’t gotten himself involved. Has that complicated your job in trying to muster Republican opposition?

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Well, it certainly would have been easier if the President had taken a particular position on this. He did have a statement of principles both during the campaign and last year during the Senate debate, and the very future of the President’s principles are actually in this bill.

But, look, I’m not going to question his strategy. The President is sitting on an 85 percent approval rating. He’s obviously doing a lot of things right, and he decided not to engage on this issue until later in the game. And if we decide not to have a conference, he won’t be engaged at all. He’ll either sign it or veto it.

I think it’s up to us here in the Senate to analyze the bill thoroughly, figure the impact on our party, what level of unconstitutionality there is, and frankly that can be dealt with in the courts. We’ll make that decision in the next week and decide at that point what the strategy is.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: I would like to thank President Bush for his willingness to set a standard, and his standard was, if the bill that comes before him improves the system, he’ll sign it. Yesterday he said that the McCain/Feingold, Shays/Meehan bill improves the system. That’s the right standard. He doesn’t get everything he wants in the bill and I sure don’t have everything I want in the bill, but I’m grateful that this President is looking at this for what it is: A bipartisan effort in both Houses. It would be very appropriate for the signature of President Bush.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senators, thank you both, very much.