Sunday, April 01, 2001

McConnell fights reform to finish

Opponents salute his tenacity and straight-on tactics

By Jon Frandsen
Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell has been such a dogged and successful foe of changing campaign finance laws that he was dubbed “Darth Vader” by his opponents — a role he seemed genuinely to relish.

        But with defeat pending, the Republican senator from Kentucky let on that he was not always an unflinching warrior.

        “It isn't a lot of fun being the national pinata,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor after Phil Gramm, R-Texas, sought to soothe Mr. McConnell by expressing his admiration.

        “I want to thank him for the great sacrifice he has made to stand up on behalf of freedom, when very few people are offering compliments, and very few pundits are applauding,” Mr. Gramm said. “I am one person who is applauding and I will never, ever forget what you have done.”

        Mr. McConnell long has resisted a variety of efforts to change campaign finance laws that sought in any way to curtail money flowing to candidates or the political parties, on grounds that such restrictions are an infringement on free speech rights.

        For the past six years, he repeatedly has thwarted efforts of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to ban unlimited “soft money” donations to the parties. Often, he had to resort to filibusters and other parliamentary maneuvers because a majority of senators backed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

        He became known as the opponent of reform — a title that both bemused and frustrated him, because as far as he is concerned the changes proposed by Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold will do more harm than good to U.S. politics.

        After years of success, time ran out for Mr. McConnell this year.

        Republicans lost Senate seats in the 2000 election, and Mr. McCain and Mr. Feingold appeared to have amassed the strength to block a filibuster and force a vote on their bill.

        Mr. McConnell agreed to an extraordinary two weeks of deliberations that will end with passage Monday.

        Mr. McConnell admitted that he went into the fight expecting to lose and that attempts to negotiate a compromise on soft money, including some private meetings with Mr. McCain, were fruitless.

        “Everybody had just gotten so dug in,” said Mr. McConnell, tagged with the sobriquet Darth Vader, the evil figure in the movie Star Wars.

        Though he has lost the battle in the Senate, proponents have not heard the last from Mr. McConnell. He will lobby against the measure in the House, likely will be on the committee that will resolve differences between the House and Senate bills, and clearly is gearing up to lead the court fights against the final measure that President Bush is expected to sign into law.

        Mixing sarcasm with his trademark bluntness and an encyclopedic understanding of arcane and labyrinthine campaign laws, Mr. McConnell rarely left the floor during those two weeks, excoriating his opponents for their misguided attempts to drive money and its influence out of politics.

        Mr. McCain called Mr. McConnell a noble and worthy opponent.

        “There have been no tricks and no parliamentary subterfuge,” Mr. McCain said. “Senator McConnell has fought the good fight.”

        But perhaps the highest compliment paid Mr. McConnell came from Mr. Feingold, who refused to claim out-and-out victory until the final vote.

        “We're not done yet, as he said. We've still got votes. ... Our opponents are very crafty, and we have to be careful, to say the least,” Mr. Feingold said.


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