Campaign Finance Reform: The Tale of the Tape

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Senators John McCain, left, and Russ Feingold with supporters at the Capitol

In this corner, the challengers — John McCain and Russ Feingold

After years of butting up against a Mitch McConnell filibuster in a Republican-dominated Senate, the prickly conservative from Arizona and the fighting progressive from Wisconsin have a 50-50 Senate, two weeks of floor debate and their best chance of passing their soft-money ban in years. ("Soft money" is unregulated, unlimited money funneled to candidates through political parties.)

In this corner, Chuck Hagel.

Chuck Hagel, the McCain buddy and fellow maverick Republican — he was one of only two Senate Republicans to back McCain in his "Straight Talk" presidential run — has sparked some very Shakespearean gossip by introducing his own, competing version of campaign finance reform. Hagel's approach would place a $60,000 limit on individual soft-money contributions, triple the limits (now $1,000) on contributions to specific candidates, and — this is the part Hagel swears by — strengthen disclosure requirements.

At ringside: George W. Bush

The new president doesn't want McCain-Feingold, but also doesn't want to remembered as just another reform-killing establishment Republican. Bush last week sent over a third proposal, which would ban soft money donations by corporations and unions (as opposed to individuals, who could still write the big checks) and prohibit unions or corporations from using member or shareholder funds for political activities without permission. This is what's known as "paycheck protection," and Bush likes it mostly because unions hate it.

How the bout shapes up

Yes, it's going to be a heck of a fight, and yes, there will be as many as 97 more contenders in the next two weeks of free-for-all debate on the Senate floor. The prize, as always, is votes. McCain is trying to keep Democrats from bolting as he tries — for real this time — to erase the one money edge they have over the Republicans. Hagel and Bush are wooing wafflers with the political cover of a watered-down version, possibly (more gossip) in exchange for tax-cut votes. Even Mitch McConnell, reform's staunchest bogeyman, has a proposal — a shutoff mechanism for the soft-money ban if the outside advertising provision is found to be unconstitutional on free-speech grounds.

The issues

There are roughly two schools of thought on money in politics — especially soft money in politics. The first is that it's evil — politicians spend too much time and make too many promises trying to raise enough of it, and the best way to get Washington's soul out of hock is to make politicians raise money the old-fashioned way — speaking to large crowds at $1,000-a-plate dinners.

The other is that it's a form of free speech and won't go away just because John McCain wants it to. Critics like McConnell say that if you take soft money away from the Democratic and Republican parties, it'll find its way to Washington by some other means — at least this way the parties still get to distribute the cash to the candidates they see fit. This crowd generally touts the sunshine effect of full disclosure as the only way to at least keep the money, if not out, then out where we can see it.

Now it is time to test the instinct of the Democrats for self-preservation. Soft money is the Democrats' bread and butter, and now that it might really be taken away, members — after lining up loudly behind McCain to a man in years past — are scattering. Louisianan John Breaux has already sided with Hagel. Bob Torricelli is making similar noises. More will follow when it comes time to fish or cut bait.

Feingold certainly isn't surprised — "Look, when you're going to take $500 million out of the system in one cycle, it is going to cause some anxiety," he said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" — and McCain insists they're willing to compromise with the White House. "It's not in our interest to set up a situation where the President would veto, and I look forward to working with him on this issue," McCain told Russert on Sunday. But McCain is also on the lookout for his bill getting "emasculated" by friendly-looking amendments.

When it comes to efforts at self-reform, of course, emasculation is what Washington does best. "It's going to be a free-for-all," anti-McCain-Feingold Republican Don Nickles said on "Fox News Sunday" of the pending debate. "We don't often legislate like that, but we're going to be on the floor for two weeks. My guess is you'll see a hybrid come out."

McCain, who opened the debate Monday afternoon with a near-sentimental litany of all the people to thank "as I beg their indulgence again," puts his bill's chances of passage at 60 percent. Take a guess whether after two weeks of floor show — at the scheduled rate of one amendment every three hours — those odds go up or down.