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The moment of truth on finance bill is here

For years, some Democrats have been supporting campaign finance reform with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

These are the politicians who, in principle, do not believe that wealthy donors should have such influence over government policy, but who fear that the elimination of big, unregulated soft-money contributions might foreshadow the end of their own political careers.

The moment of truth may have finally arrived for these folks.

While it is by no means certain that Congress will enact changes in the campaign finance system this year, there is perhaps a better chance for such legislation to pass than at any other time over the past decade.

Debate in the Senate is set to begin today on the bill authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that would ban soft money donations to political parties.

Will Democrats remain solidly in favor of the legislation?

I doubt it. In fact, some Democrats have admitted privately that they are taking a second look at the issue and questioning why they ever committed themselves to campaign finance reform.

You see, several important elements of national politics have changed dramatically since many Democrats first agreed to support campaign finance legislation.

First, Democrats now raise every bit as much money through those big soft money donations as the Republicans. When the issue was originally joined, Republicans had the advantage.

Now, the biggest soft money donors are the labor unions, which contribute almost exclusively to Democrats. For example, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes contributed more than $1.3-million to the committee that helps finance Democrats running for the Senate in the last election; the Service Employees International Union gave more than $1-million.

Second, Democrats no longer have control of the House of Representatives, the Senate or the White House. When many Democrats first agreed to support a ban on soft money they were in the majority in both the House and Senate, and they felt the legislation would help them preserve the status quo.

Without soft money contributions, they reason, it may be harder for them to regain control of the Congress and the White House.

Most Republicans, of course, have long opposed the idea of cracking down on soft money donors. The GOP has always had exceptional success in raising this kind of money.

Back in 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush pioneered in the field of soft money by persuading dozens of Republicans to donate a shocking $100,000 each to the party during his successful bid for the presidency.

Last year, the campaign of Bush's son, George W., attracted more than 100 soft money donations in excess of $250,000, for a total of more than $35-million.

Given how important this money has become to political candidates in both parties, I find it very hard to believe that a majority of incumbents in Congress are ready to kiss it goodbye.

And even if the legislation passes, it does not mean an end to big contributions from wealthy donors to the political parties. The money will simply be redirected to outside entities working on behalf of the parties.

Of course, many politicians will tell you that they do not allow their own donors to buy influence with them, no matter how much money is being offered for their campaigns. For years, I have been one soldier in the army of journalists who has documented case after case in which campaign cash bought influence.

But there is no longer any need for reporters to scratch for examples of how the system has been corrupted by big contributions. They are practically falling from the sky. Does anyone doubt that huge soft money contributions to President Clinton from the wife of fugitive Marc Rich won him a pardon?

Clinton is one of those Democrats who scorned the system while taking it to new levels. Whenever he was criticized for his reliance on big money, he would, of course, remind us that he was philosophically opposed to the whole messy affair.

If this week's debate on campaign finance issues accomplishes nothing else, it may succeed in calling the bluff of politicians who ask us to pay attention to what they say, not what they do.

_ Sara Fritz can be reached by e-mail at and by telephone at (202) 463-0576.