Another Hard Road Ahead For Soft-Money Ban

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You could forgive John McCain for getting a little overexcited about campaign finance reform. It’s the North Star of whatever presidential hopes he still has these days, and here, finally, was his (and Russ Feingold’s) perennially quixotic bill, on the Senate floor for six days of full debate. The spate of pump-priming jeremiads about pork-barrel bills and soft-money corruption that McCain posted on his web site must have seemed utterly appropriate — but not to Mitch McConnell. "Someone must be corrupt for there to be corruption," McConnell said on Thursday, challenging McCain to come forth with specific charges against individual senators. "How can there be corruption if no one is corrupt? That's like saying the gang is corrupt but none of the gangsters are." And on and on the Senate’s head GOP fund-raiser went, joined variously by Utah Republican Robert Bennett and Washington GOPer Slade Gorton, both mentioned on McCain’s web site as rather pliant targets of soft-money donations. And thus was Thursday frittered away.

"These guys hate McCain," says TIME congressional correspondent John Dickerson. "They think he’s sanctimonious, and their seats are so safe that they risk absolutely nothing with a free walloping." And this time the maverick brought it on himself. "McCain tripped up," says Dickerson. "By bringing up specific pork barrel projects –- which are a problem but not nearly as serious as, say, a big tax break to an industry that contributes millions to a party — his rhetoric outstripped the larger, valid point he’s trying to make. So they jumped on him."

It’s McConnell’s promised filibuster, of course, that is the probably insurmountable hurdle that McCain-Feingold faces. The Kentuckian makes no bones about how he feels about a soft-money ban, calling it "one of the tragedies of our time" that such a bill "is allowed to be advanced as reform." McConnell equates unlimited campaign money with free speech, and his solution to the ongoing sale of U.S. politicians is to raise prices, not lower them. With McConnell waiting to pounce with his own version of the Mr. Smith myth, McCain and Feingold need 60 votes to pass their bill, and they remain about eight Republicans short.

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