As the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapses and Congressional elections grow more expensive by the millions every cycle, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter believe it’s time to fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed and run. Earlier this year they introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful "clean election" laws at the state and local levels. (See The Nation‘s "Making Elections Fair.") This week the Senate Rules Committee held the first of what reformers hope will be many hearings on Durbin-Specter and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Our Washington intern Matthew Blake attended the hearing and filed this report:

On Wednesday morning, Senators Durbin and Specter were given a chance to make an impassioned plea to their colleagues about why the current financing system was broken–and how their bill would fix it.

"Politicians spend so many hours with special interests and wealthy donors that we don’t know what life is like for average working people," Durbin told the committee. "We need to get out of the fundraising business and into the constituent and policy business."

Former Senator Warren Rudman testified in support of Durbin’s bill on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of former Senators, including Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

"Increasingly, candidates qualifications are being measured by thesize of their wallets, not the strength of their ideas," Rudman said. Under Durbin-Specter, Senators "will be free to spend their time and energyattending to the nation’s business instead of wasting their time onnonstop and demeaning fundraising."

As expected, Senators from both parties quickly attacked the bill and defended a status quo system that re-elects incumbent politicians 98 percent of the time.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who led the fight against McCain-Feingold, assailed the bill as "welfare for politicians"–a common attack line echoed by conservatives. He noted that fewer and fewer Americans (currently 9 percent) choose to check the box contributing to the voluntary presidential public financing system. But McConnell failed to note, as Nick Nyart of Public Campaign pointed out, polls showing that two thirds of Americans support true public financing.

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a possible target of a major corruption inquiry in Alaska, railed against "bloggers who are hired to attack candidates and do nothing more than paid political advertisements—I’m limited in dollars but these attackers aren’t."

Committee chair Diane Feinstein worried that, "somebody without their marbles collecting signatures could get $13 million in California with a chance for additional vouchers."

After her opening statement, Durbin quickly took Feinstein aside and explained that she was wrong. The bill would require candidates in his home state of Illinois to collect 11,500 $5 donations to qualify for public funds, hardly a number that "somebody without their marbles" could easily collect.

Feinstein eventually apologized for her digression on signatures and seemed generally supportive of the bill. Proponents of the bill hope that she’ll be one of my converts on the road to reform. For Durbin and Specter, the task ahead is to persuade their colleagues that it’s wealthy private sector donors, not reformers and bloggers, who are corrupting Washington and perverting Congress and political campaigns.