WASHINGTON – Sens. Russ Feingold and Hillary Clinton got into in a heated argument over the impact of Feingold's campaign finance reform legislation on Senate Democrats, Feingold said Friday.
"'You're not living in the real world,"' Clinton screamed at him, according to Feingold, D-Wis., the party's leading backer of the McCain-Feingold law.
"I picked up my glass of water, and said, 'I do live in the real world and I'm doing just fine in it,"' Feingold responded, raising his voice at the closed-door meeting of Senate Democrats Thursday.
At issue was the law's ban on soft money -- large, unregulated donations to parties from corporations, unions and wealthy people. Feingold said Clinton was worried the ban would open Democrats to legal liability because of what she considered the vagueness of the law.
Feingold said a "core group" of five or six Democrats -- including Clinton, D-N.Y. -- was trying to find ways to get around the ban.
"It was a troubling display for a party that claims to be for trying to clean up the system," Feingold said.
Clinton spokeswoman Karen Dunn noted that Clinton and her GOP opponent, Rick Lazio, agreed to ban soft money from their campaign in 2000. The ban did not apply to direct mail or get-out-the-vote efforts.
"Senator Clinton participated in the only soft money ban in last year's election cycle," Dunn said. "She voted for the bill and she supports it. Senator Clinton has the greatest respect for Senator Feingold's leadership and advocacy on this issue."
She did not address Feingold's comments about Thursday's meeting.
The exchange took place at a forum organized by Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pitting Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, which supports the ban, against Robert Bauer, the lawyer for the Senate and House Democratic fund-raising committees, who has argued that soft money should still be allowed for several non-campaign purposes.
Daschle was among those at the meeting. Daschle spokesman Jay Carson called Feingold's comment about the Democratic Party "perplexing."
"I think Senator Daschle's and the Senate Democrats' commitment to this can be seen in the painstaking work and blood, sweat and tears that went into getting this bill passed," he said.
Feingold called the exchange amazing.
"It's not surprising, but I don't know how they think they're going to get away with, in a closed room, trying to figure out every way they can to keep raising soft money, and then publicly, act like they're getting rid of it. It's going to sound phony," he said.
The New York Daily News, citing anonymous sources, first reported the exchange Friday. Feingold said he would not have discussed the meeting publicly were it not for the leak.
Feingold said Clinton apologized to him on the Senate floor later in the day.
"I said it was a good show, and she said we should have sold tickets," said Feingold, laughing.
But he said he will fight anyone who tries to keep the current system -- "even those who vote for it and then try to undercut it."