WASHINGTON – Another key step forward for supporters of campaign finance reform came Thursday when Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., up for re-election and considered a vulnerable GOP incumbent, announced he would vote against any filibuster of the bill by its opponents.
Smith becomes the critical 60th vote required to allow the Senate to vote on campaign finance reform, which would otherwise be caught up in endless debate.
But even if Smith's procedural vote allows a vote on final passage, he plans to vote against it, said Smith spokesman Joe Sheffo.
Smith's position is that there should be a debate so that "at the end of the day no one is going to be able to say they didn't hear both sides," Sheffo said.
Campaign finance legislation passed the House last week. The bill, the largest overhaul in political financing laws since the post-Watergate era, would end the system in which corporations and unions pour hundreds of millions of dollars in unregulated "soft money" into the national political parties. It would also ban the use of soft money to finance the broadcasting of issue ads, often thinly veiled means to attack or endorse a candidate, in the final 30 days of a primary or 60 days before a general election.
The bill passed the Senate last April on a 59-41 vote. But since the Senate and House versions differ, the Senate is now considering accepting the House version as written to avoid any more delaying tactics.
If a filibuster fails and the vote is brought for final passage, a simple majority of 51 votes is needed. Among the 59 senators who voted for the bill last time, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, has said he will oppose the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's spokesman, Ranit Schmelzer, called Smith's expected opposition to a filibuster "very good news. The magic number is 60, and as long as they don't flip any Republicans, we're there."
Despite the maneuvering, poll after poll shows that most Americans don't rank campaign finance reform high on their priorities. The war on terror and the economy are much bigger concerns, and to that end the Bush administration went on the offensive, declaring that more must be done to egg on the burgeoning recovery.
Speaking to the Chamber of Commerce Thursday, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill joined what administration officials say is a concerted effort to revive an economic stimulus plan and get it through the Senate.
"We continue to believe that it would be useful for the Congress to enact an economic stimulus bill, and we're hoping that, with the back and forth between the House and the Senate, the Senate will finally agree to do something," he said.
The House has so far passed three different economic packages, each with tax cuts to stimulate growth and spending initiatives to help those hurt by the downturn. But Daschle, D-S.D., has refused to bring any of the proposals up for a vote in the Senate.
At a Washington think tank Thursday, the president's commerce secretary and chief economic adviser were also pushing the stimulus package and blaming Daschle for blocking it.
"It takes Sen. Daschle. Why doesn't he allow it to come to a vote? I mean, it's already passed the House," Bush economic adviser Larry Lindsey said.
Vice President Dick Cheney was also part of the chorus, telling a group of business leaders in California's hard-hit tech sector that the administration's stimulus proposals include specific assistance for their industry.
"To promote investment in this sector and throughout the economy, we support accelerated expensing for new equipment purchases, including computers, software and telecommunications equipment," Cheney said.
Cheney has actually called Daschle an obstructionist since Daschle has said he has no plans to bring up the stimulus package anytime soon. Like the rest of Congress, he's back in his home state until next week for the presidential holiday recess.
Schmelzer said that if the campaign finance reform bill reaches the Senate next week and supporters get the 60 votes needed to end debate and vote, Daschle will put aside election reform and energy policy, both scheduled for floor debate next week.
The move, a slap at Republicans who have been itching to get to energy policy, is a mark of leadership that Daschle wants to convey. In South Dakota Thursday, Daschle acknowledged that he is thinking about a run for president in 2004.
And he's already been endorsed by a fellow Democrat. Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said Daschle is taking very seriously a possible candidacy, adding, "Daschle is the best, a remarkable leader, exactly the kind of leadership that would be good for the country."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.