WASHINGTON - Twenty-four summers ago, the nation was riveted by Senate hearings probing what was described at the time as a "third-rate burglary" at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.
The links the Watergate hearings exposed between that break-in and the highest levels of the Nixon administration led to the resignation of a president and a series of campaign-finance reforms, including the creation of the Federal Election Commission.
Now, a new generation of reformers, including Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., is looking for Senate hearings on improper campaign fund-raising beginning Tuesday to spur a new outcry to close the gaping loopholes that politicians have poked in those earlier reforms.
"(The hearings) will demonstrate to the American public that this system is broken," said Mr. Cleland, a member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding the hearings. "They will demonstrate ... that we do not have the capable laws to keep foreign money, soft money or independent expenditures under control."
But others who have been following the string of abuses that occurred during last year's elections are not convinced that the revelations likely to emerge during the hearings will be dramatic enough to spark serious reforms.
"It's not going to be the riveting unraveling of a rotten system," said Ellen Miller, president of Public Campaign, a campaign-finance reform advocacy group. "Reality suggests that the Senate is going to focus on the most narrow violations of campaign law (because) neither Republicans nor Democrats can take the heat of a broader inquiry."
Federal campaign fund-raising soared during the last election cycle, particularly in the category of "soft money" - the unlimited amounts of cash that individuals, corporations and labor unions can contribute to political parties.
The Republicans raised $141.2 million in soft money in the 1995-96 cycle, up from $49.8 million in 1991-92, the last presidential election cycle, according to the FEC. The Democrats weren't far behind, raising $122.3 million in 1995-96, up from $36.3 million in 1991-92.
Armed with those statistics, campaign-finance reform advocates are continuing to push for legislation aimed at reducing the amount of money being poured into presidential and congressional races.
Mr. Cleland is cosponsoring a bill that would offer free television advertising time and discounted postal rates to candidates who accept voluntary spending limits. The measure also would further limit contributions by political action committees and ban "soft money," unlimited donations to political parties by corporations, labor unions and other large contributors.
"More and more, our political system is being driven by money," said Mr. Cleland. "It's pulling candidates like me, last year, off the road, putting them into a cell and dialing for dollars. ... We've got to rein it in."
Supporters of the McCain-Feingold bill, named after its reformist authors - Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. - failed to overcome a filibuster last year, and the measure has gone nowhere this year.
Richard Semiatin, a political science professor at American University in Washington, said it's no surprise that members of Congress have ignored a July 4 deadline for action on campaign-finance reform requested by President Clinton.
"They look for incumbency protection, and (campaign-finance reform) hurts incumbents," Mr. Semiatin said. "It makes races more competitive."
But one Georgia Republican, Rep. John Linder, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he doubts that the upcoming Senate hearings will do anything to change that anti-reform atmosphere, given the partisan bickering that has plagued the Governmental Affairs panel this year.
Mr. Linder of Tucker said expectations for the current hearings should not be based on the results achieved by the Watergate committee.
"In Watergate, the Republicans cooperated in an effort to find the truth," he said. "The Democrats on this committee have stonewalled from Day One."
Mr. Cleland said committee Democrats felt treated unfairly when Republicans, who control the panel, pushed through subpoenas for all 160 witnesses requested by GOP senators, but agreed to only 28 of 54 subpoenas sought by Democrats.
But he said he's encouraged by an agreement reached late last month. Committee Chairman Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., promised to honor more Democratic subpoenas in exchange for the Democrats agreeing to grant immunity to four witnesses who allegedly used someone else's money to contribute to a Democratic fund-raiser.
"This is coming together," Mr. Cleland said. "I think we will have fair and open hearings that really do lead into uncharted waters, waters that both sides would have preferred not to get into. But let the chips fall where they may."
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