WASHINGTON -- It's spring and a nonelection year, and that means it's the giving season for political donors.
Many of the major political party committees are staging their biggest fund-raising galas of the year, led by President Bush's black-tie dinner next week expected to net more than $20 million for the GOP.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee planned to haul in $2.75 million Wednesday night with its annual ''Taste of the States'' event.
Donors were treated to stone crab and shrimp from the South, fajitas and margaritas from the Southwest, Starbucks coffee from the West and sauerkraut and sausage from the Midwest, which featured in its display a giant plastic cow. Dozens of sponsors -- Anheuser-Busch, Kraft, Coca-Cola, the National Pork Producers Council and Krispy Kreme among them -- provided the food.
''Thank you'' signs to corporate and union sponsors were posted around the crowded, marble-pillared room at the National Building Museum: ''Senator Daschle and Senator Johnson thank Citigroup, Freddie Mac, Northwest Airlines'' read a sign over the South Dakota display.
''I think we look to causes that are about our values,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked how the senators and other Democrats will keep up fund-raising levels given the absence of prolific fund-raiser Bill Clinton. ''We are delighted tonight to have a record turnout.''
The asking price: $2,500 in hard money donations subject to federal limits or $5,000 in unregulated soft money contributions.
Executives and lobbyists who gave exhaustively to the record 2000 election fund-raising already are being bombarded with dozens of new solicitations for an election that's still 17 months away.
''We live in Washington and you are part of the process by definition, and therefore you have to participate,'' said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, whose members make 90 percent of the nation's beer.
Becker gets hundreds of fund-raising invitations each year even though his group lacks a political action committee, meaning any donations must come from his pocket or those of other executives.
''I think to some degree you want to be seen by people as contributing, whether it's Republicans or Democrats,'' he said.
Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, one of his party's more prolific money raisers, said parties and candidates tend to stage a flurry of fund-raiser leading up to the June 30 deadline for candidates' federal campaign-finance reports.
The goal is ''so that members and candidates can show as much cash on hand as possible, so they show they're in a strong position'' and perhaps scare off possible challengers, Frost explained.
There are some new twists this year: the Senate's 50-50 split and a 10-seat difference in the House are putting added pressure on Republicans and Democrats to raise more early for the 2002 election when control of Congress will be up for grabs.
And the pending McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure, if passed and signed by the president, threatens to change the rules midstream by banning soft money and raising the limits on regulated contributions.
Both parties are looking to continue a record-setting fund-raising pace.
For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee had $8.5 million in hard and soft money on hand as of March 31, compared with $2.1 million at the same time in 1999.
Its Democratic counterpart raised $9 million in the first quarter of 2001 -- three times as much as the same period last election -- and finished March with $4.6 million in the bank after paying debts.
The committees that help House candidates also are flourishing. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $7.5 million from January through March -- most of it at a dinner in March.
And the National Republican Congressional Committee took in $7 million at a March dinner featuring Vice President Dick Cheney.
Bush, whose presidential campaign shattered all money records, is lending his fund-raising prowess to the Republican National Committee for a black-tie gala next weekend that fund-raisers say could net $20 million to $22 million.
The ticket price is $1,000 but many lobbies and companies are shelling out six-figures to buy multiple tables.
The one-night record belongs to President Clinton, who last year raised $26.5 million at a barbecue bash for Democrats.
Bush and Cheney also will be raising money in June at a GOP House-Senate dinner the party committees hope will take in $10 million.
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