WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who hopes to become the next chairman of the powerful Senate Banking Committee, reaped the benefits of the capital's high-octane, high-dollar power game last night at a political fund-raiser attended by President Clinton.
More than 150 of the nation's most influential lobbyists and business people -- including many from the banking and finance world -- paid $5,000 each to attend the dinner for Mr. Sarbanes and for Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee and sip chardonnay with the president and scores of Democratic senators.
"I've talked to a lot of senators tonight. It's access," said Alan Neece, a lobbyist for the National Venture Capital Association. "Otherwise, you have to stand in line at the Capitol to say thank you to a senator who's walked the plank. This is democracy at its best."
But campaign-finance reformers, and much of the public, would beg to differ. They see this tassel-loafered event -- where one guest pulled Sen. Barbara Boxer of California off to a private table as others slipped cards to assorted lawmakers -- as
the sort of entrenched, business-as-usual operation that many members of Congress, including Mr. Sarbanes, say they're committed to changing.
Mr. Sarbanes -- who last year voted to diminish the influence of special interests by banning contributions from lobbyists -- acknowledged that, for now, it's the only way to play the election game.
"I think the rules should be changed," said the Maryland Democrat, who kicked off his re-election campaign this week. "But until they are changed, I have to work within the existing structure, particularly when the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination are independently wealthy and have indicated they will put in huge amounts of their own money.
"That's what I confront," he added. "I know they're going to launch a heavy attack on me. We have to withstand it."
As he seeks his fourth term in the Senate, Mr. Sarbanes, who expected to pull in $150,000 to $200,000 from last night's event at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel, is facing a challenge from four Republican hopefuls -- including Ruthann Aron and William E. Brock, the wealthy candidates to whom he referred. He has already amassed about $1.1 million, most of it from out-of-state sources.
After a dinner of chicken and salmon in the hotel's elegant, chandeliered Crystal Room, Mr. Clinton said he was "elated at the prospect of Paul Sarbanes becoming the chair
man of the Senate Banking Committee," something that will ensue only if, along with the senator's winning re-election, the Democrats retain control of the Senate.
In remarks that included a plea to pass health care reform legislation and cut the budget deficit, Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Sarbanes, who has supported the president more often than nearly any other senator, and Mr. Sasser. "Jim and Paul, they don't go around saying, 'Look at me, I'm a great soul.' They just sort of show up for work every day and they do right."
Joking about the charts that Mr. Sarbanes frequently uses at Banking Committee hearings and elsewhere, Mr. Clinton said, "I was made an honorary member of the Senate Wonk Caucus chaired by Senators Sarbanes and Sasser."
Mixed in with the Washington power-brokers were members of Mr. Sarbanes' family, who brought Greek cookies for the president.
Along with numerous representatives of trade unions who have long been Sarbanes supporters, many of those attending last night's dinner lobby for banks, financial institutions and companies and industries that are affected by the banking committee's rulings.
"Some people may view Senator Sarbanes as the next chairman of the banking committee," said Paul Equale, lobbyist for the Independent Insurance Agents. "Those might be the 'new friends' here."