A Beltway Bungee Jump: Against All Odds, the Senate Moved to the Brink of Epic Money Reform. Notes from a Historic-And Human-Drama under the Dome

By Alter, Jonathan | Newsweek, April 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Beltway Bungee Jump: Against All Odds, the Senate Moved to the Brink of Epic Money Reform. Notes from a Historic-And Human-Drama under the Dome


Alter, Jonathan, Newsweek


In a chamber of dull ritual, the midafternoon of March 29 unfolds like thrilling theater. The tightly coiled leading man, John McCain, head down, paces the back row of the Senate floor, his brow furrowed with worry that his colleagues will wreck his handiwork with one final killer amendment.

As the clerk calls the roll, Tom Daschle, the normally mild Democratic leader, bursts through the center double doors, raises his hand and shouts, "Aye." Patty Murray, who came to the capital as a self-described "mom in tennis shoes" reformer from Washington state and ended up heading the Democrats' soft-money committee, looks peeved about something. It turns out Common Cause lobbyists have been making the young receptionists in her office cry with their ginned-up calls threatening to wreck Murray's reformer reputation if she votes nay. She reluctantly sticks with Daschle, who now has more than enough votes to win.

Mitch McConnell stands silent and momentarily alone, hands clasped in front of his blue pin-striped suit, staring blankly across the Senate floor. The Kentucky curmudgeon who dubbed himself the Darth Vader of campaign-finance reform is whipped, and he knows it. Within the hour, he'll hoist the white flag in the press gallery, blaming the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post for pushing this "stunningly stupid" bill on an issue that "ranks right up there with static cling" as a concern for American people.

After a six-year struggle, McCain is feeling superstitious. "I won't pop any corks until I'm standing in the Rose Garden," he says as he rushes down the stairs a few minutes after winning the key test vote. "The president with me over one shoulder and Feingold over the other. Can you imagine!"

Finally, we can. John McCain is not the "Gladiator" and the bill he sponsored with Russ Feingold will not redeem the Senate and restore the glory of Rome. But I did watch something strange take place in Washington last week. Against every expectation, senators actually voted to drain money--big money--out of their own campaigns. McCain and Feingold took on the most personal issue imaginable for politicians--their own prospects for re-election--and won. The cynics got rolled.

Until the Senate acted, the smart money was on soft money. Now, despite the formidable opposition of Rep. Tom (The Hammer) DeLay in the House, the odds have shifted dramatically. Obstacles remain, especially if the bill goes to a House-Senate conference committee, which can sometimes be a legislative graveyard. But the momentum is finally with reform, and President George W. Bush indicated last week that he would probably sign the bill.

If he does, don't expect pristine politics. Office seekers will still have to "dial for dollars" and speak at fund-raising banquets; other loopholes will eventually open. In the shorter term, the provisions in McCain-Feingold to regulate TV advertising by outside groups may be declared unconstitutional. But even if the Supreme Court knocks down the limitations on sham "issue ads," the soft-money ban is expected to hold. That means the appalling spectacle of presidents and senators extorting $100,000 or $500,000 or $1 million contributions from individuals and interest groups that want favors from government will come to a merciful close.

So how did senators get shamed into voting against their self-interest? It wasn't easy. "This is like negotiating a SALT treaty," Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, moaned midstream. …

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A Beltway Bungee Jump: Against All Odds, the Senate Moved to the Brink of Epic Money Reform. Notes from a Historic-And Human-Drama under the Dome
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