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Campaign-Finance Reform: Still Alive?

Opponents of latest legislation determined to stop movement today in the Senate.

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Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold may sympathize with Sisyphus today. Like that character of Greek myth, the Arizona Republican and the Wisconsin Democrat have once again rolled the rock of campaign-finance reform almost to the top of the hill, only to have it roll back down again.

Despite two animated debates and a year-long investigation that revealed a series of improprieties, if not illegalities, in the 1996 presidential campaigns, lawmakers simply cannot agree on how to fix the system, or even whether it needs fixing. Each party has again shown it can block reform efforts it believes threaten its ability to raise money and give the advantage to the other side.

The Senate today will take a series of votes to try to break the stalemate on the issue that has lasted for years. But a key vote late Tuesday indicated that legislators are as divided as ever.

While a majority of senators - all 45 Democrats and seven Republicans - support the McCain-Feingold proposal and a friendly amendment by Sens. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine and James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, the measures do not have the 60 votes needed to end debate under Senate rules.

Likewise, a counterproposal by Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi that would prohibit labor unions from using members' dues to finance political activity without members' written permission can muster only 48 votes - all Republicans.

For the GOP leadership, the issue is dead for the year. "If you can't get to 60 votes, there's no use in spending three weeks on it," says majority whip Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma.

But minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, furious at Senator Lott's parliamentary tactics to block McCain-Feingold, says Democrats may try to attach campaign-finance proposals to other bills, thus slowing an already glacial Senate process.

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