´╗┐

How McCain Plans to Step on George W.'s Toes

  • Share
  • Read Later
CHRISTOPHER MORRISŚBLACK STAR FOR TIME

McCain and Bush do a two-step at McCainĺs Arizona ranch last August

A large pile of suck-up gifts awaits George W. Bush when he steps into his new house — crates of home-state fruit from senators, plus thoughtful though inscrutable baubles from foreign leaders. But at least one skunk will be hiding in the gift bin, a present from Bush's former GOP presidential rival. Arizona senator John McCain wants to force the new President to sign a campaign finance reform bill that Bush hates — and make him do it before he deals with any other legislation, including education, taxes and all the other items on Bush's wish list. McCain plans to launch the campaign finance debate just two days after the inauguration. In other words, even before Bush battles with Democrats over his controversial Cabinet appointees, his first legislative fight may be with his own party. How's that for a honeymoon?

For the past six years, campaign finance crusades waged by McCain have been spectacular, neon failures. But last week he may have found the key to success. Senator Thad Cochran, the Mississippi conservative, joined McCain's crusade on Thursday, bringing to 10 the number of Republicans who support the reform bill. If all 50 Senate Democrats back it, McCain will have the 60 votes needed to close down the filibuster his GOP colleagues would launch to kill it. Bagging Cochran "shook the earth" for GOP senators, says Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who has written his own campaign finance legislation. "We're going to have to deal with campaign finance reform this year whether the President-elect likes it or not."

Is McCain in cahoots with the Democrats?

McCain is not merely forcing Bush's hand; he's taking on his party's leadership. Republican leader Trent Lott and most of his GOP caucus loathe the prospect of McCain's bill being the first thing the Senate debates this year. The measure would stop millions of dollars in unregulated soft money from flowing into both parties, a spigot Lott and Bush don't want to shut off. Bush, who is irritated and puzzled by his former rival's gambit, also opposes McCain's bill because it doesn't protect union members from having their dues go toward political causes they don't necessarily support. Adding such a provision would strip the bill of Democratic votes — something Bush would love to see.

Some Democrats, naturally enough, are delighted by the prospect of Republican disarray and by the chance to send Bush an unwanted gift. Democratic leader Tom Daschle told TIME he plans to make the McCain measure, which is co-sponsored by Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, one of the first bills his party takes up after Bush is sworn in. Daschle wants to start debate next month, but that may be earlier than some of his Democratic colleagues want. John Breaux, a key moderate Democrat, says he's cool to the idea of "starting with something that's polarizing."

Republican counter-moves

But McCain believes the public is on his side. While he was making his announcement about Cochran's support, Republican senators were hearing a briefing from pollster John Zogby, who argued that the best way for them to reach out to voters is to climb aboard the campaign finance reform bandwagon. "Bulls___," howled Senator Mitch McConnell, the McCain bill's most ardent opponent. Other hard-liners are softening. Senator John Warner said he wouldn't mind a bill to turn back the tide of unregulated attack ads that anonymous groups run against candidates. "In 1978 I knew who I was running against," Warner, who's up for reelection in 2002, told his colleagues. "Now I don't."

Lott is trying to outmaneuver McCain, perhaps by preempting his bill with one that Hagel has crafted — a rival measure that conservative Republicans find more palatable. Instead of an outright ban, Hagel's measure would put a cap of $60,000 on the soft-money contributions a business, union, PAC or individual could make in any year. The Nebraska senator says he's having "serious discussions" with Bush aides on fine-tuning the measure so the new President might back it. McCain could also be derailed with a little presidential pressure. Some of the GOP senators supporting his bill might be persuaded that they don't really want to trip up their party's first President in eight years before he has even unpacked at the White House.

Why is McCain so adamant about causing trouble for the new guy in town? The senator says he's merely doing what's right. Bush thinks he's still sore about being trounced during the primaries and that this is payback. On the night Gore conceded, McCain made the rounds of the TV networks touting his reform plan — and irking the Bush team. McCain brushes off their sniping. "I campaigned on it, and I promised millions of Americans," he says. "If we don't do anything the first few weeks, we never will. If we passed a bipartisan bill, it would be great for Bush." He just wants to help his President, like it or not.