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McCain-Feingold has new little rival

Sen. John McCain has always had a lot of enemies of his campaign finance reform bill, but until recently, they haven't included his best buddy in the Senate, Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. To McCain's huge chagrin, a rival measure introduced last year by Hagel now constitutes the most serious threat to passage of McCain-Feingold _ the bill on which McCain based his presidential campaign, not to mention much of his Senate career.

Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran, is also a war hero _ he pulled his brother from a burning armored personnel carrier in the middle of a firefight. During the campaign, Hagel was McCain's favorite traveling companion on the "Straight Talk Express." He wasn't just the campaign manager; he was horse whisperer, champion, spokesman. A little over a year ago, Hagel and McCain plotted how to outwit Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist and common enemy No. 1.

Nowadays Rove and Hagel are in constant contact, figuring out how to foil McCain, who thought his hour had finally struck in the Senate. Team Bush has always preferred Hagel to McCain, calling him "McCain without attitude." Now, of course, Hagel is golden because he has brought forth a "campaign finance reform bill" that actually legitimizes soft money. McCain-Feingold bans all soft money; Hagel's bill allows soft-money donations to the national parties up to $60,000 and strengthens the disclosure requirements, as if the trouble were not the cash but the secrecy.

McCain and his Democratic co-sponsor appeared at a pep rally in the House, called to thank the Blue Dog Democrats for their support. McCain conceded the seductive appeal of his old pal's bill to Democrats suddenly jittery over the possibility that McCain-Feingold could pass and destroy the fundraising status quo so favorable to incumbents. He mentioned "some Democratic senators who are getting nervous or even looking around for an exit sign." His partner, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, said there were "some knocking knees in the Senate," adding that the House "is where we draw our strength." The House has voted aye three times and is holding steady.

McCain and Hagel are neighbors in the Russell Senate office building, but McCain says they don't talk about their campaign reform differences. "I would rather have agreeable conversations with him," McCain explains. He is counting on the media to expose the emptiness of Hagel's effort to compromise on the campaign finance problem.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle says that in his caucus, "there is complete unanimity" against Hagel's bill, except for the ever-out-of-step John Breaux of Louisiana. Daschle believes Democrats see through Hagel's proposal and that some of the current restlessness comes in part from every legislator's conviction that he can write better legislation than a bill's author.

Daschle is aware that, lately, his party hasn't looked as if it is vehemently for anything except abortion. Democrats seem to have thrown in the towel on gun control. When Kim Dae Jung of South Korea was humiliated in the Oval Office, the only Senate Democrat to protest was Joe Biden of Delaware.

"It's my fault," said Daschle quickly, when asked about "sleeping" Democrats. "I have pounded on my people to stay focused on taxes and budget, not to get off on other issues. If we can break through on that, other things will fall into place." He does not see members of his caucus voting for Hagel's bill as a way "to vote against the real thing."

Daschle has thrown himself into the fight, which could define his leadership as well as the residual spirit of his party. In his favor, his caucus is swarming with presidential hopefuls, and they all know they cannot venture into the first primary in New Hampshire without a gold star on campaign finance reform.

McCain cannot make further concessions in his bill. For instance, all mention of free television time for candidates, which would drastically reduce the obscene cost of campaigning, has already been eliminated. Paul Taylor of the Alliance for Better Campaigns has pointed out that local television stations shamelessly "gouged democracy" by jacking up advertising rates in the closing months of the 2000 campaign. But Congress doesn't want to rile up television networks, the spoiled brats of American political institutions.

McCain-Feingold is a pretty modest reform in light of the problem. If it doesn't pass, we'll have to throw up our hands on money in politics the way we have on guns in schools. It will be another national disgrace that we just can't do anything about.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

Universal Press Syndicate