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Even if all goes as expected this week and the bill clears the Senate, both sides know the game is far from over. Tom DeLay, the Republican majority whip in the House, vowed last week that he will "try anything I can" to defeat the bill, and no one doubts it is possible. Though reform bills have passed the House twice before, McCain-Feingold has changed so dramatically that it has united DeLay and top Democrats in opposition. Sources told TIME that Democratic leader Richard Gephardt complained that the increased hard-money limits directly to Daschle. He was especially angered by plans to tie the limits to the inflation rate. "If politicians make their special-interest money indexable for inflation," said a Democratic leadership aide, "they ought to index the minimum wage for working people."
If the House changes the bill, there will be a House-Senate conference to work out the differences--or provide for a suitable burial. The Republican leadership can stack the conference with reform foes, who could help kill the bill behind closed doors and save Bush from a tough veto decision. Bush will need all the political capital he has to move his budget and tax proposals through Congress; reform opponents knew last week that they could not count on his veto to save them.
Even if Bush signs on, there is still the chance that the Supreme Court will strike down part of the bill, as it did with the reforms of a generation ago. The post-Watergate effort to tidy our politics only had the effect of brushing dirt into different corners. Last week party moneymen were looking for loopholes. "Anybody who thinks you'll have less money in politics as a result is just unrealistic," says Hagel. "The money will just go outside the system." A Democratic fund raiser in California jokes that in the short run wealthy people "may save some money." But not for long. "There will be ways to get around this. You work with the issue groups more closely."
The big, glittery fund-raising dinners will not disappear. The difference is that only individuals and political-action committees will be able to contribute, not corporations and unions. A couple will still be able to give $100,000 per election cycle to national party committees. Small donors become more important, so direct-mail operations will become even more aggressive, and the "bundlers" who can enlist 100 or so donors from their company or union will have even more clout. In place of the coffee for 20 donors who give $50,000 apiece will come the banquet for 500 donors who give $2,000 apiece. The hustle never stops.
As McCain himself often says, money is like water: it finds the cracks in the wall. But the reformers argue that any change, even imperfect change, is good: it allows some oxygen into the room, and it wins some time before the influence peddlers master the new rules. In the meantime, the reformers will have shown that the system is capable of rehabilitating itself, even if it takes an entire generation to do it.
--Reported by Matthew Cooper, Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf/Washington