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On the same day the Senators also knocked back Hagel's proposal to triple the amount of hard money individuals could give, but by a much narrower vote, 52 to 47. That gave the reformers their road map. The votes to ban soft money were there, if they could find the right formula for increasing the $1,000 hard-money limit, which hadn't changed since 1974. McCain and Feingold had to come up with a hard-money deal, and quickly.
It was going to be an excruciatingly delicate negotiation. Some Republicans said they could live without soft money if the hard-money limits were tripled, as Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, a McCain ally, proposed. But some Democrats would never go that high. Dianne Feinstein of California had proposed $2,000, and Daschle had made it clear that was the absolute maximum he could accept.
On Wednesday morning McCain and Feingold orchestrated matters to produce precisely the same number of votes for the Thompson and Feinstein proposals, to force both sides to the table while assuring they were on exactly equal footing. The summit was supposed to last an hour and a half, but stretched on for three. "Outside of Vietnam, I don't think John's ever been in a room for three hours," adviser John Weaver said dryly.
The half a dozen Republicans sat on one side, the Democrats on the other; their anxious staffs were reduced to bringing in sandwiches and staying out of the way. For a long time neither side budged. The Democrats, Thompson feared, were going to walk, and he was ready to go back to the floor to lambaste them for killing the deal.
The breakthrough came from an unlikely source--G.O.P. Senator Don Nickles, who had long been among the bill's enemies but who wants to become the next majority leader. He showed leadership Wednesday on the issue of how much, in total, an individual could give candidates and parties in a year. The Republicans were holding tough at $50,000, the Democrats at $30,000. "Let's just split the difference," Nickles finally said--not quantum physics but enough to get them talking. Eventually they agreed to $37,500.
They were so, so close. The Democrats slipped into the chamber to huddle with a visibly tense Daschle. Back in the L.B.J. Room, Thompson proffered one last piece to seal the deal: the G.O.P. had moved much further on the hard-money limits; if the Democrats would index the limits for inflation, they had a deal. Feinstein shot out of the room to take the offer to Daschle, and for a few final moments the Republicans waited. When the deal was done, Thompson grabbed his throat with both hands, mock-choking over the compromise he had struck.
The reformers rushed to the floor, for fear the compromise would spoil if left too long. But the vote was a slam dunk, 84 to 16--even McConnell voted for it, saying he considered the increase in hard-money limits "a step in the right direction."