Facing the threat of legislation that could place stringent new curbs on political fund-raising, the two major political parties and members of Congress are rushing to raise as much money as they can during the first part of the year.
Traditionally, the months after a presidential election are relatively quiet ones for fund-raising. But in the latest evidence that fund-raising has become a year-round, never-ending task, the parties, senators and House members are refilling their coffers earlier and more feverishly than ever.
"It's a 24-7 operation," said Representative Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, the chief fund-raiser and election strategist for House Republicans. "With the specter of some kind of campaign finance reform, I think there is pressure on both parties to beat the clock, collect everything. We don't know what the new rules are going to be. The more money you have in the bank won't hurt you."
The legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Senators John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Russell D. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, would ban the unlimited and unregulated donations to the political parties known as soft money. It would also prohibit lawmakers from raising soft money for their political action committees, a politician's individual political fund.
Last month, the prospects for the McCain-Feingold bill received a major lift when Senator McCain recruited the 60th senator to support the legislation, a number that can prevent a filibuster on the Senate floor.
It is still far from certain that the legislation will be approved by both the Senate and the House, and President Bush has said he is opposed to some major elements of the bill.
Still, with the House and Senate so closely divided, many lawmakers and fund-raisers are leaving nothing to chance. They are raising more money earlier in the election cycle. Newly elected senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, have already established leadership PAC's to begin bringing in money, including soft money. These PAC's are in addition to the normal fund-raising committees of members of Congress.
In interviews, House Democrats and their fund-raisers predicted that they would easily outpace the $3 million they raised in the first three months of 1997, a period that closely followed a presidential election.
Republicans, too, party officials and members of Congress say, are expected to handily top the $13 million they raised in the first six months of 1997.
The fund-raising committees of the two political parties are staging gala dinners and weekend getaways at sumptuous resorts to bring in soft money checks as well as the maximum amounts of federally restricted donations to individual candidates, known as hard money, limited to $1,000 per donor. The weekend retreats are often used to thank donors and ensure their willingness to continue their contributions.
This month, 300 major Republican donors will spend a weekend sunning, golfing and playing tennis at La Quinta, a resort in Palm Springs, Calif. And over Super Bowl weekend, 65 Republicans donated $10,000 each to watch the game with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, sleep at the Dolphin Resort in Disney World and tour the Kennedy Space Center.
Democrats, too, have moved swiftly to tap donors. Also this month, Senate Democrats will hold their own black-tie affair at the Mayflower Hotel, which should bring in a total of $5 million, in both soft money and hard money.
And this weekend, Representative Nita M. Lowey of New York, the new chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, flew to Telluride, Colo., for a ski retreat with the committee's richest and most devoted donors, the kind who routinely hand over $100,000 for campaigns.
Then she will hit other Democratic gold mines, flying to New Orleans for the convention of the American Trial Lawyers Association and on to Los Angeles to meet with A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials and Hollywood powerhouses. Individual trial lawyers, their firms and labor unions are the most generous soft-money donors to the Democratic Party.
March should bring another windfall of Democratic money: A New York City fund-raiser by House Democrats should raise $750,000, and they plan to follow that with two formal dinners in Washington, at which they expect to raise a total $3.5 million in soft and hard money.
"I frankly am trying to do as much as I can early in the year in all donations that are legitimate," said Ms. Lowey. "Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of money in campaigns. And Republicans traditionally out raise us. We're getting going because the stakes are so high."
House freshmen, some of whom raised record sums to get elected in November, are jumping into the fray early, hoping to scare off challengers. A half-dozen new members held fund-raisers the same week Congress went to work in January, and one Republican, Ric Keller of Florida, who faced a tough race, started raising money even before he was sworn in.
"It's important for incumbents to show they are going to be tough opponents by having a sufficient amount of money in the bank by June 1," said Mr. Keller, who raised and spent $1.5 million to get elected.
Other senators and House members are also rushing to set up political action committees, the individual funds that can finance travel and allow donations to other candidates' campaign coffers. Once used almost exclusively by party leaders, PAC's have proliferated rapidly this year, especially among newly elected senators.
Doling out money to other candidates and incumbents has become a popular way to win friends and gain influence. In addition to Senator Clinton, Jon Corzine, Democrat of New Jersey, and John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, have set up new leadership PAC's, which can accept donations of as much as $5,000.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is considering setting up a PAC so he can pay for his travel to campaign for fellow Democrats.
Mr. Davis, the House Republican fund-raising chief, said, "It's just another way to raise money to help the team and help yourself."
The threat of the McCain-Feingold bill worries the two parties, and their committees, for different reasons. Both Democratic Party committees and Republican Party committees raised record amounts of soft money for the 2000 election, $244.4 million for Republican committees and $243.1 million for the Democrats. With the loss of soft money, House and Senate Republicans fear that the unions will dominate politics at the grass-roots level.
But Republicans are much better at raising those coveted small contributions for individual candidates — the hard dollars — something Democrats know could seriously hamper their efforts to win back control of Congress. This puts Democrats in the awkward position of pushing for a bill that could hurt them much more than they anticipated four years ago.
"It's all-out war," said a senior Democratic fund-raising official. "There is a consensus around that McCain-Feingold is going to pass. We are doing as much as we can to collect as much money before the door closes."
Hoping to better compete in that war, Democrats named Terry McAuliffe, one of the party's most prolific fund-raisers, to head the Democratic National Committee, despite concerns that he is so good at the job his image has suffered.
Under his leadership, the Democratic National Committee, and its House and Senate counterparts, are paying particular attention to those small individual donations.
So far, Democratic National Committee officials say they are doing better than anticipated raising money through direct mail and over the Internet, mostly because Democrats are so angry over the presidential election and the selection of John Ashcroft as attorney general. Their Internet drive alone has brought in several million dollars, officials said.
"If you go outside the Beltway and talk to activist Democrats, they are more energized now," said Brian Hardwick, the Democratic National Committee's finance director. "They are at campaign speed. This is the time. We don't want to let this fade and not tap this energy."
The Republican National Committee is also flush with money. Consider that by the end of January, the committee had $24 million in the bank, compared with the $11 million it carried in debt in 1997. With control of the White House, the committee should have a banner year.
Senator Lincoln Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican elected in November, said the parties and candidates are always searching for loopholes in their hunt for new money.
"Now that loopholes are being closed," he said, about the possibility that the McCain-Feingold bill would pass, "the other thing to do is start earlier and earlier and earlier."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company