Don't mess with McCain


WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is learning, if he didn't already know it, that his Republican colleague, John McCain, is not a man to be trifled with.

When Mr. McCain discovered last week that Mr. Lott was holding back the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill passed by the Senate rather than sending it to the House for consideration, he pushed through an unusual resolution calling on the Senate leader to do so.

It was an embarrassment to Mr. Lott, particularly coming at the instigation of the Senate Republicans' most prominent maverick. Mr. McCain, sitting in his Senate office the other day, made it clear he intends to keep the pressure on Mr. Lott, who voted against McCain-Feingold, to move the bill over and give the House its chance to pass on it.

"If he doesn't," Mr. McCain said, "I will have to explore other options to make that happen. There are various ways to tie up the Senate -- resolutions, forcing additional votes. But I hope Senator Lott will gracefully send that over and have it resolved."

The strategy of proponents of the bill banning unregulated or "soft" money in federal campaigns in both the Senate and House is to have the House, which has passed similar but not identical legislation twice, adopt the Senate version. That approach would preclude the need for a House-Senate conference in which foes of the bill might scuttle it.

That prospect seemed the obvious motive in Mr. Lott's holding the bill, in the hope that the House would act on its own version and be obliged by differences to enter into the mischief-making conference.

While Mr. McCain's immediate interest is the campaign finance bill authored by himself and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, the Arizona senator also expressed concern that Mr. Lott's action was a serious breach in established Senate practice on moving legislation from the Senate to the House.

"Suppose you were a senator that the Senate majority leader doesn't care much for," Mr. McCain said, "and you're near the end of the of the session (and you have) a non-controversial bill that everybody's signed off on. Suppose the majority leader has a grudge against you and doesn't send it over. This could set a very serious precedent, not just for this bill, but for the way that Congress operates." There was, he said, no precedent for what Mr. Lott did.

Asked whether he was thinking about taking action to remove Mr. Lott as majority leader, Mr. McCain dismissed the idea. "I wouldn't have the votes to do that," he said. Besides, he suggested, "I just don't believe the majority leader would again want to go through a parliamentary procedure where he was instructed to do something."

Mr. McCain is demonstrating the same determination to avoid roadblocks or just inertia in the matter of broader election reform in the wake of the major flaws uncovered in the Florida controversy last fall.

Although several other committees are still engaged in fact-finding over problems involving voting and vote-count machinery and technology, his own Senate committee is about to mark up a bill providing matching funds for the states to upgrade their systems and set standards for testing their dependability.

Two other Republican and two Democratic senators have already proposed authorizing $2.5 billion in matching funds for the states. Mr. McCain says he will look at that proposal but is going forward with his own bill.

"It's not something that can wait until next year," he says. States will need time to acquire, test and install new equipment to have it up and running in time for the 2002 congressional elections.

But providing federal help to the states for election reform is not something that has engaged President Bush, for all the personal experience he underwent last fall with the inadequacies of the system. His new budget has no money whatsoever in it for the purpose. Asked why not, a spokesman for Bush's Office of Management and Budget replied that the Federal Election Commission was not the proper vehicle to handle the task.

That response, and the absence of election reform money in the Bush budget, brought a wry grin from Mr. McCain. "I hope it's an oversight," he said.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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