Washington Prowler

Softened GOP Waters

Feeling abandoned, Senate Republicans swallow a bitter campaign finance pill. Also: Whither Illinois? Armey succession.

By 3.20.02

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END OF THE ROAD
Who'd have thought campaign finance reform would have created the odd bedfellows of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and the American Civil Liberties Union? But then campaign finance reform has made lots of strange bedfellows: former firebrand conservative John McCain and ultraliberal Tom Daschle, for example. Republicans on Capitol Hill are hoping that pair will be less visible when President George W. Bush signs the campaign finance bill that passed yesterday into law, which may come as soon as early next week, according to White House sources.

Senate Republicans on the losing end of Wednesday's 60-40 vote are also hoping that the Bush administration won't rub it in their faces with a public signing. "Daschle and his ilk are asking for a Rose Garden signing ceremony," says a White House congressional liaison staffer. "That's something we're trying to avoid."

Instead, according to the legislative lobbyist, it's been suggested that Bush quietly sign the bill in a low key Oval Office ceremony. "We know McConnell basically has the lawsuit ready to go to try to kill this thing," says another White House policy staffer. "Let's just sign it and get on with the next act."

McConnell on Thursday is expected to introduce part of the legal team that has been at work for more than six months preparing legal arguments and strategies to block a campaign finance reform act.

The biggest loser in the campaign finance fight may not be Hill Republicans but relations between Senate Republicans and the White House. According to one Republican Senate leadership staffer, Minority Leader Trent Lott and McConnell had lined up a rock-solid 42 senators, enough to ensure that a planned GOP filibuster against the bill could not be blocked by Democrats.

But, says the leadership staffer, the White House had been so clear about its intentions to accept campaign finance reform, there was no point in putting up any further resistance. Throughout the Capitol on Wednesday, the drizzly weather outside mirrored the tempered moods of Senate Republicans indoors. "There was nothing to be done," says another Senate staffer. "The White House made it clear that they wanted this thing on the President's desk and that he would most likely sign it. What were we going to do?"

Instead, McConnell and his allies are looking ahead to a court fight and a tough 2002 election. Republican National Committee sources say that the party is in good shape financially for what may be the final races involving soft money. "But my gut tells me soft money will be around in 2004. I think we win this in the end in the Supreme Court," says an RNC fundraiser. "It's certainly something for us to rally around."

WHO LOST ILLINOIS?
The Illinois gubernatorial race isn't turning out the way it was supposed to, and that's got the White House peeved. George W. Bush and some senior advisers stopped by Chicago last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick's Day and left angry at what they saw and heard. "It's a mess," says a White House political aide. "We're in for a rough ride in Illinois. We've tried to stay out of it out of respect for Speaker Hastert. But it's chaos there, we risk losing everything in the state."

Former Golden Gloves boxer and seminary student and current state attorney general Jim Ryan, 56, won the Republican nomination for governor on Tuesday, but not before a bruising battle with two other candidates: Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood and state Sen. Patrick O'Malley. O'Malley, a pro-life, pro-guns conservative, in particular beat up on Ryan's moderate positions. "Ryan would not have been our first pick," says a senior Republican National Committee member. "But Dennis seemed to think he was the guy who could keep Republican control in Illinois. Who were we to question him?"

Even though Ryan was his hand-picked candidate, Dennis Hastert never bothered to ensure that the primary would be a closed affair. Nor did Hastert prevent Ryan from announcing his candidacy before his boss and political godfather, current governor George Ryan, who's been under a dark ethical cloud, declared he would not seek a second term. "Hastert failed as a kingmaker," says the RNC member. "This is looking like a disaster to us. Why was the White House worrying about California and not Illinois?"

In the end, Ryan spent more campaign money than any other candidate to win his primary and now faces a well-financed Democrat in Rep. Rod Blagojevich, who showed strength downstate in winning the Democratic nomination. (His Chicago House seat is expected to be filled by Clintonite Rahm Emanuel, who won the 5th district primary going away.) Already, Blagojevich is counting up the new fundraising dollars pouring in from organized labor and the Chicago political machine. He's an early favorite to win the governor's seat, a difficult pill for Republicans to swallow.

ARMEY IN A FIGHT
Lost in the primary flurries around the country was the bloody contest pitting retiring House Republican majority leader Dick Armey's son, Scott, against several challengers for his father's seat. The younger Armey failed to win the Republican nomination outright and will face off against local physician Michael Burgess. While Armey is still favored to win the seat, it was an embarrassing moment for the family that has held it since 1984. "We will have another Armey warming that seat come next January, don't doubt it," says a source close to the candidate. "The primary was a blip. We'll win the runoff and run hard from there."

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