JIM LEHRER: And now some analysis of the campaign finance debate by Brooks and Oliphant: David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe. First on today's action on TV rates, where does that fit into campaign finance reform, Tom?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, this would be the supply side if you consider the money the demand side. And I think one reason that this proposal passed is because it fits so easily. In other words, if you're going to reduce, in effect, the amount of money coming into campaigns and you really reduce it if you eliminate soft money and don't do anything about what amounts to a loophole in current broadcast law that allows TV stations to really sock it to candidates in the final stages of the campaign, what have you really done? So the amendments seemed to be a logical proposition and I think that was the reason it passed so overwhelmingly.
JIM LEHRER: Logical in that it keeps TV stations from raising the rates during the time that the candidates really need it.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, it guarantees the senators or anybody the lowest possible rates, and there is a substantive argument. As long as they have to spend the huge amounts of money on the ads they're going to find a way to raise it soft money or not. But there's also sort of a special interest here; if there's one special interest the US senators feel sympathy for, that's US senators. And they don't like paying these high TV rates just like the other amendment that passed. They don't like the thought that some bazillionaire is going to run against them. So these were the two amendments that are deep to their hearts and they both passed.
JIM LEHRER: Explain the zillionaire amendment. What was that really all about?
DAVID BROOKS: You're Joe Senator from New Mexico, say. You've raised $5 million and suddenly Joe CEO decides he'll run against you and spends $65 million. You cannot raise that amount of money with the hard money limits so you are just cheated. This is to get -- sort of even up the playing field to raise the limits so you can compete with Joe Zillionaire.
JIM LEHRER: That of course just puts more money into it, does it not?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, it does, and I think it's important for another reason, Jim, and that was the first instance and there probably will be more before the next two weeks are up where the Senate voted to increase the limits on a form of giving that we call hard money. The question is how much....
JIM LEHRER: Hard money meaning it goes directly to the candidate --
TOM OLIPHANT: Direct contributions.
JIM LEHRER: -- soft money goes to other organizations and the party and it's done in a more general way.
TOM OLIPHANT: Right. Yes. Many Democrats went along with this. In fact, Dick Durbin of Illinois, a fairly liberal fellow, is one of the strongest supporters of it. But others were quite upset about it because they're worried that this is the camel's nose under the tent and that there will be more raising of the ceilings as the debate unfolds. So you had a kind of a cautionary statement from the Democratic Leader Tom Daschle after this happened. But I think because self-interest was involved, I think it transcended part of it.
DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans have a hard money advantage. Democrats are, you know, don't want to raise it but they're going to have to at the end of the day.
JIM LEHRER: It does have a kind of in-house quality to it, doesn't it, listening to them debate over whether or not that... of course, there are 15 zillionaires, as you call them, in the United States Senate participating in this very debate and if there's 15 and then there's what -- what's 15 from... No, no, no.
TOM OLIPHANT: 85.
JIM LEHRER: 85. Never mind. There are 85 who aren't. But everybody's got a stake in this. This is not like patient's bill of rights.
DAVID BROOKS: This is one subject they really know. These guys spend six hours a day raising money. They know about this subject and this debate has been utterly amazing -- that it's all out there in front of us. It's so complicated. I spoke to Senate staffers today and they're talking about the Hazel desegregation amendments, the Domenici hard money compromise, this and that. You can't understand a word they're saying just because there's so much going on. And it's all... They don't know what's going to happen. It's just an amazingly complex thing that's going on up there.
JIM LEHRER: This is their subject though.
TOM OLIPHANT: This is the family business. But I do think after three days the first outlines of a trend are apparent, Jim. There does appear to be a coalition on the floor of that Senate that supports McCain and Feingold. It's shaky. It hasn't been tested in the strongest way.
JIM LEHRER: Support McCain/Feingold in that "stop soft money."
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, and take the constitutional risk, perhaps, maybe not, of regulating the expenditures by these outside groups at the end of campaigns. I thought late today you could see the coalition functioning. There was an amendment from the left by Paul Wellstone of Minnesota involving public financing in theory. Many Democrats voted against it not because they disagree with him but to keep the bill pure. There was a Hatch proposal from the right about labor unions. Many Republicans were voting against it, again not because they disagree with Hatch but because they happen to support McCain/Feingold. The test will get much tougher in the next few days but I think you can see the coalition in action.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
DAVID BROOKS: I absolutely agree. There is a working coalition in the early going when they had to table the Domenici, blah, blah, blah the Democrats were able to keep their side, the Republicans. So the Republicans... the reformers really feel some momentum. There's talk that some of the opponents may try to move up these poison pills to block the momentum.
JIM LEHRER: And the number one poison pill is the labor union amendment, is it not?
DAVID BROOKS: I would say there are two, I think. One is something called non-severability, which essentially says if the Supreme Court strikes down part of this law, if it becomes law then the whole thing goes kablooey which the opponents want. Second, the hard money; we talked about raising the hard money caps. Those are the two possible poison pills. And they may come quite soon but maybe next week.
TOM OLIPHANT: There's another element to the dynamics so far that I think relates to what David just said. That is you do not see Trent Lott, the Republican majority leader, and Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, very much in all this. I know they're backstage and everything. But what I think is going on is that the Senate is legislating. We're actually getting to see this happen. And I think this coalition is... exists almost despite the political parties. Whether it has the will to persevere or not we'll have to see. But it is impressive that the leaders are not a factor right now.
JIM LEHRER: So when you say the coalition is there, it isn't that they all got in a room before this started and said, okay, here's the battle plan guys, we'll do this amendment. It's working its way out right in front of us.
DAVID BROOKS: It's way too complicated for any sort of organized battle plan. It's just in the cloakroom how do we deal with the next five minutes? But it does seem to be holding together.
JIM LEHRER: But one of the senators said in Kwame's piece that this doesn't happen very often in the United States Senate. He's right, is he not?
TOM OLIPHANT: I can't remember except when I was a baby covering Congress in the early 1970s a debate in the Senate that was entirely open where the legislation, if not being written on the Senate floor, at least was subjected to whatever breeze could come through the chamber. So for the public, this really is a rare opportunity to see what the Senate looks like.
DAVID BROOKS: It's interesting that it's recently civil. The scripted debates are more partisan. Here they're actually talking to one another. We saw at the end of the segment Hatch and Kennedy hugging. Kennedy viciously attacked Hatch's bill saying it was incompetently written. Hatch then comes around and says I don't need lectures from the distinguished senator from Massachusetts, and he was furious. As he went on the ham in came out. He started playing to the crowd and he said I love the senator from Massachusetts as few in this chamber do. And that got a big laugh. The natural friendship and the bonds of senatorial courtesy eased things up and we had the hug.
TOM OLIPHANT: Also the discipline. In other words, at any given moment, you may be with a guy on one amendment and not with him on the next, so given the fact that you've got to get through these two weeks together somehow, I think it tends to damp down the natural passions on all sides of this.
DAVID BROOKS: There's still McCain there. McCain is a potential live wire.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, though what's so fascinating to me is that McCain is in the back rooms negotiating with people over there. This person who doesn't call himself Miss Congeniality in the Senate is actually being the diplomat.
JIM LEHRER: So is he running it?
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's a lot of people. It's Feingold's playing a very active role. Fred Thompson; there are a lot of people: Susan Collins, and then the staff, you know, the senators go home and the staff is up there all night.
JIM LEHRER: I won't hold you to this but I'm going to ask the question nevertheless, do you have a feeling that something similar to McCain/Feingold is actually going to be enacted into law?
TOM OLIPHANT: I really do, Jim. Absent some sudden change of opinion on the principle alternative that his good friend Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is trying to push without a lot of converts to Hagel's alternative, this thing really looks like it could fly in the Senate.
DAVID BROOKS: NCAA brackets perfectly. And I wouldn't have said this four days ago but I agree with Tom. It looks a lot more likely now.
JIM LEHRER: Come back to the point that I raised a moment ago. The big poison pill... it was said going in that it was the labor union not being a... a law that would not allow labor unions to use money for political purposes without the consent of the membership. What's going to happen with that?
TOM OLIPHANT: It doesn't look very strong. I think there's been a lot of political testing of that idea, both in the country and in Congress in recent months and year. I think the real test is when the... the inevitable effort to raise these hard-money caps that haven't been raised in 27 years, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky....
JIM LEHRER: Hard money I mean that's basically $1,000.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's right. Mitch McConnell said they haven't been changed since the days when a Mustang cost $2700. When that happens, do you peel Democrats off the bill, off what I've seen so far I would say no. And it surprises me.
DAVID BROOKS: They look like major league hypocrites after all these years of saying we're against this. The public won't see why or why not. They'll just see the Democrats when push came to shove abandoned reform.
JIM LEHRER: Should the public see this as something very important, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Moderately. You know, it's not the end of campaign finance reform. I think most people acknowledge it's a band-aid. There's already a parlor game in Washington. How will people get around these new rules -- it's a step but I wouldn't see it as a major form of campaign finance.
JIM LEHRER: Will the end result be less money in the political process which is what John McCain has staked his whole future on?
DAVID BROOKS: There's a big river going down and you erect a beaver dam over one of the rivulets. It'll go somewhere else.
TOM OLIPHANT: To mix metaphors, Orrin Hatch likes to compare it to natural gas, that it's going to find a precipice, some kind of place to come out. John McCain is more optimistic. His view is that this is the gateway to the ability of Congress to work its will on so many other issues where there may be consensuses in the middle that are being blocked by the kind of influence that money can buy.
DAVID BROOKS: And he says it will take 20 years before the lobbyists find a way to outfox it.
JIM LEHRER: David, Tom, thank you both.