Capitol Letter: Labor Takes Aim At Mccain-Feingold

Senate Democrats who support the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill will return from recess next week to a game where the stakes have been raised considerably by a critical constituency: organized labor. During the past several days, according to Democratic sources, the AFL-CIO has dispatched lobbyists to meet with each of their legislative staffs. The labor lobbyists came to reinforce the message from the organization's executive council meeting in Los Angeles last week: that two major provisions of the bill, which is scheduled for floor debate late next month, are unacceptable.

Labor is on board with the central objective of McCain-Feingold: elimination of "soft money"-the rivers of unregulated cash from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that flow to political parties. But it opposes the so-called "electioneering" provision, which bans advertising by unions and corporations for or against specific candidates within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Unions believe the provision breaches their constitutional guarantee to free speech and that it singles out both labor and management while leaving other politically active groups unencumbered. Labor also opposes the bill's restrictions on coordinated activity between unions and candidates. The language is so broad, unions contend, it could bar even lobbying visits and candidate appearances before labor audiences.

Proposals for taking some of the money out of politics have washed in and out of Congress for years. President George Herbert Walker Bush, the incumbent's father, vetoed legislation that would have provided public financing of House and Senate campaigns for candidates who agreed to spending limits and curbs on donations from political action committees. Since its introduction in 1996, McCain-Feingold has failed four times to clear the Senate, blocked by Republican-led filibusters that prevented a vote on the bill. But the Clinton-era fundraising scandals and the popularity of Sen. John McCain's insurgent bid for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination-with campaign-finance reform as its centerpiece proposal-seemed to give the bill its best chance ever for passage. McCain and his cosponsor, Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, said they had at least 60 votes-enough to break another filibuster. Perhaps as a reflection of the measure's new strength, labor has intervened more forcefully than ever before.

That's bad news for McCain and for the Democrats who provide the lion's share of support for the bill. With 66 unions and 13 million members, the AFL-CIO is a huge player in the party, providing grassroots support and millions in campaign contributions to candidates. It is prepared to use its muscle to stop McCain-Feingold as it is now written. "They're really going to push this," says one leading consultant who advises Democratic leadership in the Senate.

The McCain camp says it is early and that labor, like other interested groups, is just staking out its opening position. But they do wonder how their coalition will hold up under pressure from such a powerful constituency. "This is a real gut check for the Democratic caucus," says McCain adviser Rick Davis. But Davis adds that he believes the bigger issue for Democrats is whether they are truly ready to say goodbye to soft money-the heart of the bill. The reason: after years of lagging, they are now as adept at raising it as the Republicans. The nearly $500 million in soft dollars collected by the two parties in the 2000 presidential-election cycle was split down the middle, according to the Federal Election Commission, with $244.4 million for the GOP and $243.1 million for the Democrats.

All of this is in addition to the peril that McCain-Feingold faces from its Republican foes in the Senate, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. When the bill reaches the floor next month, the GOP is expected to attempt to deal it a death by a thousand cuts, loading it with amendments to make it even more unpalatable to Democrats, including a requirement that unions get members' permission before using their dues for political activity, a measure known as "paycheck protection." While prospects for McCain-Feingold remain stronger than they've ever been, that may not be saying a whole lot. It's not hard to see how the bill could hit yet another wall in the Senate.

Gubernatorial Dreams
United States Senators can be an emotionally needy bunch, in frequent need of strokes and salves to their fragile self-esteem. When the other party is in the majority, or visions of the Oval Office begin to dim, even life in one of the world's most exclusive clubs can lose a bit of its allure.

What to do? Put your name in play for some other big job, say, governor. Or, if you get mentioned as a possible candidate, just say you haven't ruled anything in or out.

Soon there are stories in the home-state press about party officials who've approached you to consider a run, quotes about what a formidable candidate you'd be, buzz about how the plans of other aspirants hinge on your decision. It's not the presidency, but the package isn't bad. There's a mansion (usually), an official plane, state-trooper escorts everywhere and, of course, a chance to wield executive power. Also, the path from the statehouse to the White House is much more heavily traveled than the one from the Senate to the presidency. Four of the last five chief executives served as governors. Recently, three prominent senators have conducted gubernatorial dalliances: Fred Thompson, the Republican from Tennessee, and Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and John Breaux of Louisiana.

Thompson, the Watergate-committee-lawyer-turned-Hollywood-character-actor-turned-senator said last week after months of speculation that he wasn't running for governor in 2002 and would most likely seek a second Senate term in 2004. "My time and attention are needed here in the Senate," he said, "and I need to be free of political distractions." But Tennessee political insiders think Thompson never seriously entertained the race. "It was an ego booster," says one veteran political writer, who added that if Thompson had any real interest in the race, it would have been dampened by a look at the thicket of difficulties awaiting Tennessee's next governor, including serious budget problems and a crisis in the state's health-care program, TennCare. If Thompson does switch jobs, look for him to become president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's lobbying arm in Washington, when Jack Valenti retires.

Although he still won't unequivocally take himself out of the race, Connecticut's Sen. Dodd now calls his gubernatorial ambitions a "nonstory." But he fed the boomlet a few weeks ago by refusing to rule out a 2002 campaign and acknowledging that he'd discussed the idea with the chairman of the Connecticut Democratic party. But Dodd would be giving up far more than Thompson by leaving Washington. As senator's son who began his own service in 1980, Dodd's institutional roots are deep. With his seniority beginning to accrue, his power stands to expand-almost certainly into a major committee chairmanship-if the Democrats win back the majority in 2002.

Sen. Breaux, everybody's favorite moderate (President Bush sounded him out about joining his cabinet) says it's too early to talk about the 2003 Louisiana governor's race, but he remains the most serious prospect for going home. Some Louisiana pols are convinced he will eventually enter the race. He wouldn't have to give up his Senate seat to run (he's not up again until 2004), and his home-state travel schedule these days has a distinctly gubernatorial feel, with speeches and events highlighting education and children's health care.

"I could see him getting tired of the Senate," says University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato. "What do you really have to look back on? You attend a lot of historic occasions like inaugurals. Maybe you pass a bill. But the vast majority [of senators] never get anything passed that lasts, that stays in the history books. Governors build things. Lots of buildings. Lots of brick and mortar."

The most ardent gubernatorial suitors are in the House, where at least three-David Bonior, the Michigan Democrat, and Republicans Steve Largent of Oklahoma, and Jim Kolbe of Arizona-are looking seriously at 2002 races. Bonior, the House's second-ranking Democrat as minority whip, is "more than 90 percent sure" he will run. It's more than career restlessness that is driving him. Michigan is expected to lose a congressional seat as a result of the 2000 census, and the GOP-controlled legislature that will redraw the district lines has the liberal Bonior in its cross hairs. But the surest sign that he's running: he's publishing a book: "Walking to Mackinaw"-the title is a reference to his 24 years of walking his suburban Detroit district-will be out in June.