Money and politics, not reform, are on the minds of lawmakers as the full Senate begins considering the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill today - and wavering Democratic support spells trouble.
The bill's ban on unregulated campaign "soft" money, including limitless contributions for issue advertising by party committees, is unlikely without sharp increases in current limits on federally regulated donations to candidates and national parties, congressional sources and election law analysts said.
The fear of proponents that federal election campaigns have spun out of control - $500 million of soft money was spent in the last election cycle - is overtaken by another fear, that national political parties cannot survive without the unrestricted cash. Several analysts said this at a Brookings Institution forum to review prospects for Senate action on campaign finance reform over the next two weeks.
"If you ban soft money, only [federally regulated] hard money is left," said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). "How are parties going to fund themselves?"
Currently, individuals are limited to giving a total of $25,000 in any two-year election cycle to federal candidates and national parties. Individuals can give $2,000 to each candidate. Political action committees (PACs) can give $10,000 to candidates with no aggregate limit. Corporations and labor unions are barred from making contributions from their treasuries to candidates but can contribute "soft money" to national parties.
The federal hard-money limits have not been raised since 1974.
In the 1999-2000 campaign cycle, according to the FEC, a total of $692 million in hard money was raised by both candidates and their national parties. Republicans raised $447.4 million and Democrats raised $270 million.
The reality is setting in with Democrats, who provide the majority of support for McCain-Feingold, that the soft-money ban is not in their party's self-interest, said Thomas E. Mann, Brookings' chief election-law analyst.
"There are reasons to question the sincerity of Democratic unanimity behind McCain-Feingold," Mr. Mann said, particularly since Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana bolted last week over concerns that his party would hurt itself by prohibiting soft-money donations.
Further, he said, the AFL-CIO's opposition to restrictions on issue advocacy advertising by labor unions, corporations and independent groups, and broadly defined limits on coordinated political activities with political candidates and party officials spells further trouble on the Senate floor.
Another bill, proposed by Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, and Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, is regarded as the most likely compromise.
The bill would authorize soft-money contributions up to $60,000 per donor and triple the current hard-money limits to an aggregate of $60,000 per donor during one election cycle. It would impose public disclosure requirements on independent advocacy groups that finance issue advertising in political campaigns.
President Bush announced his own "principles for campaign finance reform" on Thursday in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. This largely repeats his campaign proposal and is close to the Hagel-Landrieu approach.
Mr. Bush calls for updating hard-money donation limits, which he says would strengthen the role of individuals in political campaigns, and for banning corporate and union soft-money contributions, but not those from individuals. He asks for "protecting the rights of citizen groups to engage in issue advocacy."
The president seeks a ban on involuntary political contributions by company shareholders and union members when corporations and unions contribute from their treasuries. He seeks a "paycheck protection" …