Earlier this month, when the Democratic National Committee met in Washington to install Clinton fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe as its new chairman, there was a moment, which went largely unreported, that sheds light on the coming congressional debate on campaign-finance reform.
McAuliffe's nominating speeches were designed to portray the voluble promoter as a consensus choice, so there were cameo appearances by a Latino state chairman, a Southern white committeewoman, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a Kennedy - Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.
Representing labor was Jerry McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and head of the AFL-CIO political committee. In full cry, McEntee said that while "lots of Democrats may be disappointed and dispirited" by the election results, "the American labor movement is ready to march behind our new leader, a man of enthusiasm and tireless energy."
"For Terry," he concluded, "the signal is always green, and speaking of green, when he comes up here, he can pick up this envelope. There's a check for $100,000 in it."
Last week, I asked McAuliffe if he had found the check. "No," he laughed, "it was an empty envelope Jerry was waving." But, he added, an AFSCME contribution of $100,000 arrived the next week.
The episode is important in understanding what lies ahead when the Senate next month takes up the McCain-Feingold bill, whose central provision would bar such six-figure "soft money" contributions to the political parties from unions, corporations or wealthy individuals. If it passes, the parties would have to rely on much smaller "hard money" contributions, limited by law to the same minuscule sums that were set a quarter-century ago.
The measure, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has passed the House in the last two Congresses and has commanded a majority in the Senate. But because they fell short of the 60 votes needed to curb a filibuster, McCain and Feingold have been unable to get their bill through the Senate.
Now that has changed - apparently. Democratic gains in the last election and fresh support from at least one previous opponent, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., have virtually guaranteed that a filibuster cannot succeed, the backers say. Their position has never looked stronger.
But that is not the only thing that has changed. The amount of soft money raised grew enormously in 2000 and, perhaps even more important, Democrats found themselves more dependent than ever on soft-money checks like McEntee's to offset the Republicans' larger and more affluent base of hard-money contributors.
One Democratic consultant, speaking anonymously, told me last week, "Our folks are beginning to realize that if we lose these big contributions, we can forget our hopes of a comeback in 2002. We'll never match what Bush and the Republicans can generate in $1,000 contributions."
When Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the leading foe of McCain-Feingold, had assurance of more than enough votes to sustain a filibuster, it was easy for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, to persuade every Democratic senator to support the legislation. It was, in effect, a free vote - placing Democrats on the side of reform and clean government, with a guarantee that nothing would change in the actual fund raising.
Now that there is finally a chance of McCain-Feingold passing, the private doubts long harbored by some Democrats and their supporting groups are becoming public. McAuliffe said the DNC still supports the legislation, and said he is already beefing up the party's direct-mail solicitations, a catch-up effort in an area long dominated by the GOP.
But last week the AFL-CIO, which in the past had endorsed a ban on soft-money contributions, announced that it has serious misgivings about other provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill. Limiting "issue ads" that criticize candidates by name - even if not calling specifically for their defeat - in the period before an election would inhibit its ability to communicate freely with union members, the memo said. Other sections would make it impossible for labor to coordinate its voter-turnout efforts with those of the candidates it supports.
None of these concerns is trivial. But they point up some of the very same constitutional objections McConnell and other opponents - including a variety of conservative groups and, yes, the American Civil Liberties Union - have made for years.
Democrats and their supporters could ignore these considerations as long as there was no chance the bill would pass. Now, suddenly, they have a fresh urgency.
Washington Post Writers Group