Special-Interests' Moneybags Are Easy Target in Capitol, but Path to Reform Unclear Series: SPECIAL INTERESTS. Part 1 of 2. Thursday: The Republican View

Article excerpt

IT is the best of times, it is the worst of times for campaign reformers in the nation's capital.

The best of times because every major political leader in Washington, from the White House to Capitol Hill, now champions some kind of change in the way America pays for its elections.

The worst of times because leaders don't agree how the system should be fixed. And if they fail this time, any chance for comprehensive reform will probably be lost for years.

The laurels of success, or the onus of failure, will fall directly on President Clinton and the Democratic Congress. They have the votes. They promised change. Yet the obstacles to reform may be insurmountable.

A campaign-reform bill rumbled successfully through the Senate on June 17, but the real test will come in the House of Representatives. Within days, House Democrats plan to unveil a package of ideas to clean up the electoral process, which is heavily influenced by special interests and $100,000 donors.

Details of the House plan are already leaking out, and what's known leaves many experts uncomfortable, just as the Senate plan does.

"I just don't see how {this} constitutes real reform," says Ellen Miller, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics. One of Ms. Miller's prime complaints: Democrats plan to set spending at approximately $750,000-per-candidate in House races. That's more than most of them spend now.

Yet the tide for some kind of change is strong. Majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri has thrown his full weight into finding an acceptable plan. House Republicans have their own reform task force.

Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington has worked longer on reform than almost anyone in the House. He describes Representative Gephardt's efforts to find a compromise as "monumental," adding, "It will not be for lack of trying if it doesn't happen."

In an earlier interview, however, Representative Swift said that after grappling with this issue for years, it was only recently that he figured out why the House has so much trouble with it. He blames the House's diversity.

"We have rural areas, we've got suburban districts, we've got urban districts, we have `super-urban' districts like New York and Los Angeles. We have more minorities who tell us they ... raise money differently. …