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IF WASHINGTON IS SO OUTRAGED, WHY IS IT LETTING CAMPAIGN REFORM DIE?

Somehow, the comic irony escaped Senate Republicans. They killed campaign-finance reform on the same day they were taking their greatest umbrage at the excesses encouraged by the very system they were saving.

The whole scene on Capitol Hill was more worthy of Saturday Night Live than C-Span. But it's what the public has come to expect -- and accept -- despite all of the orchestrated outrage over abuses in last year's campaigns.

At one point, there was Harold Ickes, point man in White House fund-raising efforts, facing GOP attacks before a Senate panel on the same day that Republicans elsewhere in the capital were using procedural tricks to kill the McCain-Feingold reform legislation.

There was Republican Sen. Arlen Specter calling for the resignation of Attorney General Janet Reno for not getting to the bottom of alleged campaign abuses at the same time that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was pushing a "poison pill" amendment sure to kill a reform bill that might otherwise have gotten bipartisan support.

And there was Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell defending the current system and "freedom of speech" on the grounds that anyone with the money to buy access has the freedom to speak to politicians who can grant legislative favors.

When McConnell winds up sounding a lot like Roger Tamraz -- the Lebanese financier who proudly described his efforts to buy White House access -- it says a lot about what's really going on.

The whole thing was more entertaining than a Clinton coffee klatch, and more revealing than anything on the newly discovered White House fund-raising tapes.

It reveals the degree to which a minority of senators will go to stymie reform. A majority of 53 -- all 45 Democrats and eight Republicans -- wanted to bring McCain-Feingold to a vote to curb "soft" money and end runs around fund-raising limits. But they were unable to overcome bureaucratic maneuvers that required 60 votes to move the question.

That 53-member majority was unable to overcome Republicans, who consistently raise and spend more than Democrats and who continue to fend off any meaningful changes in the system that gives them such an advantage.

Now there are vows to attach McCain-Feingold -- which already has been significantly watered down -- to other critical but unrelated legislation to force the vote that the public deserves.

That's hardly the preferred way to do legislative business. But it can easily be argued that campaign-finance reform is indeed related to nearly every other issue because lobbyists who have made large contributions get "access" to influence votes on all of those issues.

That's something voters should remember when deciding whether campaign reform really is important, and whether they want to punish at the polls those lawmakers who think they can continue perpetuating the current fund-raising racket with impunity.

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