Clinton Plan to Ban 'Soft Money' May Spark Reform President Aims to Limit Gifts to Parties - and Rescue Democrats from Campaign-Finance Storm

Article excerpt

President Clinton's proposal that the Federal Election Commission ban campaign contributions of so-called soft money is unlikely to get off the ground unless the political composition of the commission changes.

But even if it fails, Mr. Clinton's latest campaign-finance reform initiative, which he was set to present to election officials yesterday, could pay short term political dividends for the president and a Democratic Party badly battered in fund-raising scandals.

Clinton challenged Congress in his State of the Union address in January to pass comprehensive campaign-finance reform legislation before July 4. But with that deadline fast approaching, there is no indication on the horizon that enough members of the Republican-controlled Congress are committed to a campaign-finance revamp. By appealing to FEC commissioners to write soft money out of their regulations, Clinton is positioning himself in the reform camp just as the White House and the Democratic Party are about to face hearings next month in Congress over alleged fund-raising abuses during the 1996 election. Analysts say that if history is any guide, the FEC effort will fall short. But, they say, the president can't lose for trying. "Politically it is a wonderful thing to do," says Paul Herrnson, a professor at the University of Maryland and a campaign-finance expert. "{The president} is looking bad in terms of the soft-money issue, and the party is not looking too good. This is a way they can get back on the horse of the reformers again," he says. Renewed hopes Some analysts see the Clinton initiative as a possible means to kick-start stalled reform efforts in Congress. "It is an interesting way to go about trying to change campaign-finance rules. Certainly Congress isn't rushing to it," says Diana Dwyre, a professor and campaign-finance expert at California State University at Chico. "Maybe it will start the ball rolling." Soft money is at the center of the ongoing investigations in Congress and the Justice Department. The White House coffees and the fund-raising of John Huang and other Clinton associates all involve either soliciting or contributing soft money. A request similar to Clinton's is already pending before the commission. It was made last month by three Republican and two Democratic members of Congress. Soft-money donations are those made outside federal contribution limits. For example, corporations and labor unions are barred from making any contributions directly to federal candidates. …