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McCain's challenge looms for Bush

When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., rolls out the latest version of his campaign finance bill, President-elect Bush will face an early _ and critical _ test of his political prowess in dealing with the closely divided 107th Congress.

The impending rematch between the two rivals for the Republican presidential nomination could help shape Bush's relations with both parties and with McCain, a maverick who, in league with Democrats and GOP moderates, may hold the balance of power in the Senate on issues ranging from health care to taxes.

It also could give some clue to whether McCain, who attracted a large national following during his losing presidential bid, can parlay it into enhanced influence in a Senate where he was always something of a Lone Ranger. Although he still regards himself as a conservative on issues such as national security, he has joined the centrists' caucus and espouses its bipartisan goals.

McCain, who crusaded for campaign finance reform for nearly a decade in the Senate and made it the hallmark of his reform-driven campaign for the presidency, has said he intends to push for action on the issue as the Senate's first order of legislative business _ even before Congress starts acting on Bush's agenda.

"I intend to bring it up as early as possible, and I hope we can get it dispensed with before the Bush legislative agenda comes over," McCain said in a recent interview. "They (Republican leaders) want me to delay. You know, hearings before the Rules Committee and all that. But I think this issue has been fairly well ventilated. . . . I think the time has come."

Although the outcome of the latest campaign finance struggle is far from clear, advocates of reform were strengthened by the November elections that added at least four senators to their ranks and split the Senate down the middle. This improves chances for passing a ban or curbs on unlimited, unregulated special-interest contributions _ "soft money" _ to political parties, as proposed by McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., but does not guarantee its enactment.

McCain says he thinks he now has the 60 votes needed to eliminate the threat of a filibuster by Senate Republican leaders that has blocked action on campaign finance in recent years. Others say they think he may be a vote or two short but acknowledge he is within reach of his target.

The House has twice approved legislation similar to that advocated by McCain, and if passed by the Senate and signed into law in anything like its current form, the bill would provide for the first major tightening of campaign funding laws in a quarter-century.

"We're at critical mass in terms of negotiations" on a bill that can pass both houses of Congress, said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a longtime advocate of tighter rules on campaign fundraising.

"The chances of something passing are probably pretty good if McCain and Feingold recognize that they have to pass something that can be signed into law," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, who fought the legislation in the past but says he could support a compromise that passes muster with Bush.

A key unanswered question is what role Bush will play. During the campaign, he said he supported reform, but he stopped short of the full soft-money ban advocated by McCain and embraced an anti-union provision that is regarded as a deal-breaker by Democrats, who have always provided the vast majority of votes for McCain's proposal.

Strategists on both sides of the issue say Bush faces risks whichever way he turns.

If he opposes the bill or tries to emasculate it, critics will accuse him of being anti-reform, and he will lose an opportunity for demonstrating bipartisan leadership.

He also risks alienating McCain as an ally on the many issues on which they agree, such as education reform and an overhaul of Social Security. But if he goes along with major curbs on fundraising, he is likely to anger major GOP constituencies _ from gun owners to anti-abortion forces and religious conservatives _ who fear their voices could be silenced by too much regulation.

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