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THE IMPERILED PLAN FOR CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Considering its spurious auspices, no one should be surprised that the campaign finance reform bill has been strapped to the railroad tracks and the locomotive is hurtling toward it at full speed. So many people -- some of whom can't come out and say so -- are wishing for its death.

The smiling villain of the piece is Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, who offered an anti-labor amendment that he knows the Democrats will not accept. He expects them to filibuster so they can be accused of the killing. He is not alone. His party is solidly behind him. Only four of their number -- John McCain, the bill's co-sponsor, Fred Thompson, leader of the investigation that has been gleefully greeted as a flop, Arlen Specter and freshman Susan Collins -- have dared to break ranks to support the anemic measure that Lott finally allowed to come to the floor.

Democratic senators, who have benefited equally from the present rotten system, are lined up behind their leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and are showing 45 strong as favoring some small changes in the way they scratched and begged their way to office.

On the House side, there are literally dozens of bills that have been introduced by members who protest that they want reform, just not the McCain-Feingold brand. On hearing of yet another congressman or senator who has his or her own version, McCain says resignedly, "Doesn't everybody?" The patron of the present pageant is, of course, none other than the politician whose excesses led to the investigation. President Clinton, reform's new best friend, threatened to keep the Senate in session if it didn't go through the motions. Then, as Lott pointed out in bringing up the bill, he blithely headed off for a fund-raiser in Houston where he extracted almost a million dollars from faithful Democrats. Vice President Gore, despite what could be a fatal encounter with check-writing Buddhist nuns and priests, took off for Chicago to raise more of the soft money the bill is trying to eliminate.

A week ago, the Republican caucus at its weekly lunch learned of a potentially unnerving item in the Weekly Standard, the magazine that represents the core thinking of right-thinking Republicans.

"McCain't Gonna Happen" was one headline on a story by staff writer Matt Reese; another was "Has Fred Thompson Blown It?" The answer was a resounding yes.

"Ripped my skin off," said Thompson ruefully, as he made his way to this week's GOP caucus and another stop in Calvary. The point is that few publications could have been more reluctant to publish what the Standard called "bad news" -- about a poll, conducted by the Republican National Committee, showing that campaign reform had crept up to equality with high-priority items like crime and education.

The poll had no visible effect on Republicans like Mitch McConnell and Robert Bennett, who shamelessly, even "proudly" continued to belabor what they call unconstitutional changes in the status quo. It's probably just as well. Like so much else on the reform scene, the poll was a fraud. "Totally erroneous," said RNC communications director Cliff May, who said respondents were not even asked a question about McCain-Feingold.

As the Senate dispersed for the Jewish holidays, all the swirling questions came down to one: Will one more Republican come out against the Lott amendment, which mandates prior approval from union members for political expenditures?

Lott's opponents have 49 votes and need just one more for a tie that Gore could break. And, no one is sure just how much the public really cares. Pressure could change everything, but except for academics and editorial writers, evidence of rage is lacking. Absent that, all the enemies of reform, secret and overt, will cling to the old way, which may make mendicants of all seekers of public office, but provides a security blanket for incumbents.

The train is moving fast. It won't be long now.

Universal Press Syndicate

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