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STANDING UP FOR EXPENSIVE SPEECH

After enough House Republicans ignored party honchos and saved the chamber from embarrassing itself on campaign-finance reform, it will now be up to Senate leaders to stop obstructionists from making that chamber look foolish.

Unfortunately, they may have to give up one part of the reform package that House members courageously passed just to get the larger part -- a ban on soft money -- enacted.

That's the current judgment of the two senators closest to the action -- Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold -- who don't want their bill blocked again by a filibuster even though a majority of senators supported it the last time the issue came up.

The McCain-Feingold measure is the Senate companion to the Shays-Meehan bill, which the House passed by a handy 252-177 margin earlier this week.

The legislation would ban "soft money," the unlimited, unregulated donations to the parties that are at the root of what's wrong with the campaign system. It also would curb the attack ads that run under the banner of "issue" statements.

That such a bill passed the House, despite the GOP leadership's desperate efforts to sabotage the vote, is a testament to how much traction such issues have gained with the American public.

Nevertheless, some GOP senators -- who don't run every two years, as House members must -- threaten to thumb their noses at the public and filibuster McCain-Feingold to death, just as they did last year.

It is hard to fathom how Senate Republicans would want to be in the embarrassing position of filibustering a measure designed to snatch elections from the grasp of moneyed interests and return them to the people.

It seems inconceivable that the party that shut down the government, foolishly impeached a president over a private matter and sent him a tax bill skewed to the wealthy would stand in the well of the Senate and bring government to a halt in defense of lobbyists' ability to buy elections.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of some right-wing Republicans to grossly miscalculate the public mood. That's why McCain and Feingold are talking about introducing a stripped-down bill that omits the curbs on campaign ads, at least until they can judge how much support they have this time around.

Republican critics have couched much of their opposition to campaign reform in the rhetoric of the First Amendment. They've opposed the bill on the grounds that curbing ads would violate free-speech rights.

That, of course, is nonsense. But by dropping that provision, McCain and Feingold would remove a philosophical fig leaf and force the obstructionists to come clean and state their real objection: They don't want to give up soft money.

That will be a much harder argument to make publicly, and might give reformers the 60 votes they need to break any filibuster. And if, during the debate, it looks like enough senators will support the more comprehensive version, the issue-ad curb could be added as an amendment.

But at this point, something beats nothing. Getting a ban on soft money -- even if that's all that can be achieved -- would be a significant step toward cleaner government.

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