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New Limits Near on Money in Politics

Revelations in Senate probe, plus push from Clinton, boost chance to control 'soft money.'

Prospects for reform of Washington's campaign money mess have improved considerably in recent days.

Louder rhetorical support from President Clinton - plus a new focus on incremental fixes - has revived a change effort that long seemed to be going nowhere.

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Senate hearings on finance abuses haven't hurt, either. This week, among other things, they've featured the unedifying spectacle of a top Democratic party official admitting he pushed hard to usher big donors into the Oval Office.

"I'm increasingly confident that something is going to happen," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, a sponsor of campaign finance legislation, at a Monitor breakfast. "I think it is going to happen this year."

For months, Capitol conventional wisdom has held that all the city's talk about cleaning up campaign finance is a lot of sound and fury signifying an intent to do nothing. Too many incumbents, lobbyists, and big donors are comfortable with a system they understand, goes the theory. The public doesn't like the way money flows through US politics - but neither does the public seem outraged enough to punish politicians at the ballot box who don't back reform.

That calculus may now be changing. One reason is that Mr. Clinton on Wednesday vowed to wage a public fight for passage of a campaign finance law. Much skepticism greeted this pledge - after all, Clinton has indicated a similar position in the past, yet continues to rake in millions at big-bucks fund-raisers.

To this point, he's done little but talk about his support for the main reform vehicle, broad campaign finance legislation sponsored by Sens. Feingold and John McCain (R) of Arizona.

But other analysts think Clinton might need to make a genuine push for change. Hearings chaired by Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee have increasingly focused on drawing lines of responsibility for abuses directly into the White House. Vice President Al Gore's fund-raising phone calls have come in for similar uncomfortable publicity. Absent some progress, the issue may become a big problem for Mr. Gore in campaign 2000.

Perhaps more important, some advocates of reform are lowering their sights and aiming at more incremental change. One fallback position: Settle for constraints on "soft money," the largely unregulated contributions to national parties that now flow in by the millions.

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Conventional wisdom here now holds that soft money regulation is the most likely campaign-finance outcome, as Senator Feingold himself admits. A bill introduced by Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia would cap soft money donations at $100,000. Rep. Chris Shays (R) of Connecticut is pushing similar legislation in the House.

"Eliminating the possibility of soft money would be the crucial reform," says Anthony Corrado, an election expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

That's because the barrier between soft money and "hard" funds, the tightly regulated cash that pays for direct candidate campaign expenses, seems to have become increasingly permeable. The Democratic Party even took some money donors gave as soft funds and simply converted it to hard money without their knowledge, according to a New York Times report. That meant some donors inadvertently exceeded hard-money donation limits.

Furthermore, soft money (which is supposed to be used for general party-strengthening activities, like voter registration) is by far the fastest-growing kind of campaign contribution. Democrats and Republicans combined raised $89 million in soft funds in the 1991-92 campaign; the figure jumped to $263.5 million in the 1995-'96 cycle.

Overall, recent revelations show the Democratic National Committee "never had the kind of screening they should have of large soft-money contributions," says Herbert Alexander, a University of Southern California campaign-finance expert. "They never should have jiggled that money around."

Pressure on the White House to appear to be doing something about campaign reform may increase in the weeks ahead. The House will begin companion hearings to those now occurring in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. As Ellen Miller, director of the watchdog group Public Campaign, points out, hearings are now demonstrating "the cashing-in side of the situation."

For the first time, they're directly demonstrating the link between money and access. This week, former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler testified that he felt it his duty to push hard to gain White House access for big contributors such as Roger Tamraz, an international oil financier.

GOP questioners were oddly gentle with Mr. Fowler, however. They made a point of eliciting his opinion that much DNC fund-raising activity seemed to be controlled by then White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes - not Fowler himself.

Still, barriers to campaign-finance reform remain considerable. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi opposes most proposed changes and vows to resist any guerrilla tactics of reformers, such as attaching bills to unrelated legislation.

The number of reform efforts - over 80 campaign finance related bills have been introduced - could diffuse progress. And whether the public has been roiled by recent revelations remains uncertain. "I can never expect this to be one of the top five priorities of people trying to make ends meet," admitted Feingold.

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