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Clinton victory in battle over campaign funds: Senate victory marks turning of the tide

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton yesterday savoured the unaccustomed taste of a string of successes on Capitol Hill, including a vote ensuring Senate passage of a bill which would reduce the influence of special interest groups in election campaigns, and curb the colossal sums spent by individual candidates.

Earlier, the Senate's powerful Finance Committee had settled its version of his economic package that would trim public spending by dollars 508bn ( pounds 338bn) over five years, while committees of both houses agreed to allow university students to pay for their tuition with public service work.

Last night, Mr Clinton sought to build on his new momentum by holding the first televised prime-time news conference since he took office. Nothing can be counted certain until the President has written his signature, but after weeks of criticism of the White House, the tide is turning in his favour.

Of the various measures, none will have greater public resonance than the potential overhaul of campaign finance, an issue which Congress has ducked and fudged for years. After the avalanche of abuse heaped upon it during the 1992 campaign and the astonishing popularity of Ross Perot, action could be delayed no longer.

The proposals, which the Senate approved by 60 votes to 38 yesterday, are a compromise falling well short of the switch to full public financing sought by Mr Clinton. But they would rein back the rocketing costs of running for office, ban contributions from special interest political action committees, bar lobbyists from giving money to congressmen, and place limits on the 'soft money' given to parties and then handed on to candidates.

Henceforth a voluntary limit of dollars 600,000 will be set on House races, while ceilings on Senate contests vary between dollars 2m and dollars 8.2m in the costliest and biggest states like California. The result should be a drop in total costs, which rose to a record dollars 678m for the 34 Senate and 435 House elections in 1992 - a sum 50 per cent more than in 1992.

Top of the list last year was the California Senator Barbara Boxer, with dollars 10.4m, followed by Alfonse D'Amato in New York (dollars 9.2m). Three House members spent more than dollars 3m, or five times the new limit, in 1992. If the plan reaches the statute book, it should reduce the huge fundraising advantage traditionally enjoyed by incumbents.

Public funding, however, will be available only to candidates whose opponents breach the voluntary ceilings. That money would be partly raised by the repeal of tax concessions for meals and entertainment by lobbyists, which is already contained in the budget packages of both Senate and House.

The version which emerged from the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday contains a modest 4.3 per cent increase in taxes on petrol and other motor fuels, instead of the broad energy tax which Mr Clinton was forced to jettison this month. But its planned cuts in welfare and social spending are likely to run into bitter opposition among liberal Democrats.