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Reform's Timing

Campaign finance reform never has clear sledding. The entrenched opposition in Congress sees to that. Political and parliamentary obstacles dot the course.

But as yet another round of debates and votes nears, reformers have a few advantages of their own. For starters, they retain some momentum from last year's contentious Senate and House hearings on questionable fund-raising practices in the 1996 presidential campaign.

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Draft reports from the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee probe are making headlines. The Republican version zeroes in on the foreign funds that poured into Democratic Party coffers - part of hundreds of millions in "soft money" collected by both parties in the last electoral cycle.

Soft money, you'll recall, is funding supposedly earmarked for party building (e.g., get-out-the-vote drives), but which typically finances ads that directly promote candidates. Thus the law's limits on contributions to candidates virtually evaporate.

Fresh coverage of the Democrats' foreign connection should remind the public how the law's flimsiness invites abuse. Democratic senators, predictably, aim their report at similar charges regarding the GOP. Their target: the alleged laundering of foreign contributions through a nonprofit front group by former Republican chairman Haley Barbour.

As if on cue, a key figure in the foreign-money controversy has reappeared in Washington. Yah Lin (Charlie) Trie, an old Clinton friend from Arkansas suspected of channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chinese sources to the Democrats, emerged from hiding to protest his innocence and face trial. He won't have his day in court until October, but his presence helps flavor the debate.

Promised votes in Congress

That debate will peak soon. An agreement last year between the Senate leadership and reform forces set March 6 as the deadline for a floor vote on campaign finance legislation. The House leadership, too, is committed to allowing reformers an up-or-down vote next month.

Finally, some other interesting voices have joined in the call for reform. The latest belongs to billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who recently warned senators that US corporations, who provide the bulk of campaign cash, are captive to the current campaign finance system.

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The chief tool for changing that system is the bill that bears the names of Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin. The heart of McCain-Feingold is elimination of the soft money loophole. That worthy goal, however, generates fierce opposition from those, like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, who equate limits on campaign contributions to an attack on the First Amendment. It's sufficient here to note that the Supreme Court has allowed limits on contributions and has recognized the government's interest in avoiding the influence-buying dangers posed by a system with lax regulations.

Familiar obstacles

McCain-Feingold will encounter familiar obstacles - such as an amendment to block union political contributions unless union members give their OK. Democrats, dependent on labor support, won't buy that. But this year reform proponents could succeed in diluting that opposition. Moderate, pro-reform Republicans are seeking a way to balance the union-member consent provision with shareholder consent on corporate contributions.

Even if that obstacle is overcome, however, reformers face a filibuster on McCain-Feingold itself by Mr. McConnell's forces. The 60 votes needed for cloture remain elusive, but not impossible.

In the House, where bipartisan support is broader and the parliamentary roadblocks fewer, reform could have an easier time reaching the finish line. Passage there would apply pressure on the Senate. Also in the mix is a recommendation from the Federal Election Commission's general counsel for that agency to administratively ban soft money.

Meaningful campaign finance reform is possible this year. Soft money should be ended before Americans are subjected to another money rush like that (or surpassing that) of 1996. Fuller, more prompt disclosure of contributors is also a must.

Standard political analysis attributes reform's failure, so far, to an ambiguous public that wants a cleaner system but doubts reform will accomplish much. Many Washington politicians, in line with this perception, doubt there's much to lose by opposing reform - and know there's plenty to gain, in the way of campaign dollars, by leaving the current money-gusher alone.

They underestimate American voters, who know instinctively that an unrestrained, easily hidden stream of money into politics distorts policymaking and breeds corruption. Controlling that stream is part of democratic vigilance, which from time to time has to be sharpened and reapplied. Now is such a time.

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