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Campaign fund-raising is a topic most congressmen and senators avoid like the plague.

Not Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., outspoken champion of sky's-the-limit money grubbing. He'd have us believe the fat cats are simply exercising free speech -- not trying to buy influence -- when they write fat checks.

How amusing, then, to see McConnell feuding with some of the very folks he purports to represent in the controversy over campaign-finance reform -- a committee of high-echelon business executives who have endorsed a ban on unlimited contributions.

The Committee for Economic Development, which includes executives of General Motors, Xerox, Merck and the Sara Lee Corp., is a New York City-based, nonpartisan public-policy association that has been around for 60 years. It hopes to persuade 300 business leaders to endorse by late fall its proposals to overhaul campaign-finance law.

O'Connell's response was to fire off a churlish letter to committee members in which he accused them of attempting to "eviscerate private-sector participation in politics" by imposing "anti-business speech controls." He urged at least one to resign from the CED.

To their great credit, these public-spirited executives, who view the letter as an attempt to intimidate them, vow to stay the course.

Edward Kangas, co-chairman of the CED committee that studied campaign finance, said Mitchell's intemperate threats show the organization is starting to shape the reform debate. "If we weren't having an impact, he would not be communicating with us," said Kangas, who is chairman and chief executive of the accounting firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Critics of the Republican Party's stance on campaign finance, which Mitchell echoes, say Republicans oppose substantive reforms because they receive far more campaign money from the private sector than Democrats.

The truly delicious irony in this public set-to is that Mitchell, the self-appointed guardian of free speech, is attempting to muzzle the CED.

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