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Newfound religion on the reform issue

In the surreal Senate debate on the investigation of campaign abuses, Republicans did not talk about the turmoil in their souls. They came on the floor from a caucus lunch where they pushed their leader, Trent Lott, aside, took political counsel from a freshman _ and a woman at that _ and at last came face to face with the reality of campaign reform as an issue with voters.

Majority Leader Lott, who prides himself on his ability to count, lost his grip on his caucus. Over their weekly lunch, he watched his troops abandon the fix he had so carefully fashioned only days before _ a "compromise" that would have suffocated some questions and buried others alive in the Rules Committee, which has an executioners' row who regard reform as a tiresome affectation with no audience beyond the Beltway.

Lott wanted to chop the funds for the chief sleuth, Sen. Fred Thompson, chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, shred his mandate and shorten his leash to the point where he could look only at "illegal" actions. Lott was so confident of support for this masterly handling of a live grenade that, at the outset, he unwarily announced that he would regard a vote on the fix as a test to the party and himself.

By the time the senators had finished their club sandwiches, Thompson had his money and his mandate back and a license to hunt down the improper. Thompson spoke. He forbore to take them to the edge of the precipice and bid them to look down at the ruination that might await them if he were to take his clipped wings to the country. He didn't have to. Members knew he was furious about the rout in the Rules Committee.

John McCain, author of a finance reform bill, was of course with him. And so was freshman Susan Collins of Maine, who was listened to with respect rare for a rookie. She had the authority of firsthand experience of voter passion on campaign abuses. Maine passed a reform referendum in November that authorizes 90-percent public financing. "We cannot defend the indefensible," she warned colleagues. They listened. They listened also to Dan Coats of Indiana, a grave and Christian man, who told them they couldn't get away with it.

Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said they had to face up to "improper," since the Department of Justice does illegal. Unexpected voices were heard, too: Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Ted Stevens of Alaska, who are never accused of trying to save the world. Lott had been listening to his right wing, to champions of the status quo such as Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

McConnell is particularly fanatical and shameless in his advocacy of unbridled spending and has appointed himself as shepherd of the freshmen on the folly of change. His method is that of a school principal with fractious new students. He summons them to his office and challenges them: "You're not going to be a problem to us on this, are you?" With senators who have a low threshold for condescension, the method is not entirely effective.

Nobody is sure exactly what got into the caucus. Some speculate it is the cascade of appalling stories that fill the morning papers. Maybe it was because the scandal has recently moved from the reprehensible to the truly rotten, with a story of a poor American Indian tribe that paid $107,000 for one Clinton lunch and two Gore receptions. A DNC fund-raiser promised, but did not deliver, help on a land claim. The American Indians, with their ancient history of being ripped off, took the money from their emergency fund _ for food and fuel. They were subsequently dunned by Gore money people for lobbying fees and 10 percent of the take on mineral rights. The sad tale epitomized just about everything that is disgusting about Washington.

Not one word of this was spoken on the floor, but the lesson had certainly been learned by the majority leader. Lott went on the floor, sought Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the author of an amendment that added the words "or improper" to the committee's charter. Lott embraced it as his own, put his name on it and saw it adopted 99 to 0.

While these wondrous events were unfolding, the president was downtown at the National Press Club demonstrating his newfound religion on the reform issue. He told a meeting of the reform group called the Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition that he was instructing the FCC to tell broadcasters to come up with the time for candidates. The broadcasters _ who have just received the enormous boon of free spectrum facilities, and showed their gratitude by issuing a ratings system that is as obscene as the fare they were supposed to be regulating _ are already whining and sniveling about the loss of revenue they would face.

The broadcasters have not learned what Senate Republicans have just found out _ that doing the right thing can be extremely attractive.

Universal Press Syndicate