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Reforming Campaign Finances - Tough Nut for President to Crack

THE White House and Congress are both in Democratic hands, so President Clinton's sweeping plan for campaign finance reform should breeze into law - right?

Well, maybe.

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Even with one-party rule in Washington, campaign finance reform looks like a tough sell. Republicans are not buying Mr. Clinton's version of reform, and may filibuster it to death in the Senate. A number of Democrats also have serious doubts.

Reform comes hard, though the general concept has widespread support among both Democrats and Republicans. Ellen Malcolm, president of Emily's List, a Democratic fund-raising organization, observes: "Everybody wants to do something, and nobody agrees on what should be done."

Even Washington's professional "reform lobby" is divided.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, praises the Clinton plan as "broad reform." He says it could "stop the [political] arms race that ... is being fueled by special-interest money." But Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, says spending limits proposed by Clinton are "way too high" and "really don't represent reform."

While drawing significant criticism, the Clinton package, unveiled Friday, is still one of the most ambitious in years.

Clinton would put a "voluntary" cap on spending for House races at $600,000. Senate candidates could spend from $1.2 million to $5.5 million, depending upon a state's population. Clinton would also tighten restrictions on the amounts that political action committees (PACs) could contribute.

In a breakthrough for public financing, candidates who accept the voluntary caps would be granted communications vouchers to pay for broadcast time, newspaper ads, or mailings. Clinton would impose a new tax on lobbyists to help pay the costs. He would also boost the current voluntary $1 income-tax checkoff to $5, with the money to go for both congressional and presidential elections.

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To reduce the influence of lobbyists, anyone who lobbies would be forbidden to give campaign contributions to any lawmaker they specifically tried to influence during the past 12 months.

Unless such measures are taken, politicians here worry that public confidence in Congress will continue to weaken. There is a growing perception among voters that special-interest money runs this city, and that the situation is getting steadily worse.

Speaking to a group of students on a brilliant, sunny day on the South Lawn of the White House, Clinton said May 7: "Without fundamental change in the way we finance campaigns ... everything will be harder to achieve. Economic reform, health-care reform, and political reform must go hand in hand."

While Clinton's plan sounds like progress to some reformers, Ms. Miller cautions that "the devil is in the details." Everyone wants the reform package fashioned their way.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the leading Republican spokesman on campaign finance, complains that Clinton will still allow millions of dollars from political action committees to influence campaigns. Senator McConnell would prefer a complete cutoff of PAC money.

Some Democratic congressmen who represent low-income districts fret that even the limited reduction of PAC money in Clinton's plan could put them at a disadvantage. They depend heavily upon PAC funds, since their own constituents are often too poor to contribute.

Some Southern Democrats balk at Clinton's proposal to spend millions of public dollars for "communications vouchers," and to expand the staff of the Federal Election Commission. Southern voters widely oppose public funding of congressional elections.

With all of these doubts percolating on Capitol Hill, Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, a reform advocate, says there is only a 50-50 chance that Clinton can win majorities for his plan in the House and Senate.

Yet if Congress and the president are ever going to pass reform, this should be the year. All sides are under growing pressure from voters, from interest groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen, from radio talk show hosts, and even from Ross Perot to clean up the election process.

If Congress fails to agree on a bill, "It will not be for lack of trying," says Rep. Al Swift (D) of Washington, who began working for reform during the early 1980s.

Debate is expected to get under way first in the Senate. Meanwhile, House majority leader Richard Gephardt, working closely with his colleagues, was reported to be crafting his own proposals.

It was not immediately clear how his plan might differ from the president's, though some of his fellow Democrats worried that the $600,000 cap on spending for each House candidate might be too low.

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