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Sam Waterston Pushes Bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to propose legislation this week that would create a public election financing system that would keep candidates competitive while, among other things, banning lobbyist money in elections.

"Law & Order" star Sam Waterston, in an interview with the Huffington Post, said the time is ripe.

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), will be introducing the Fair Elections Now Act on Wednesday. And they are expected to be supplemented by a coterie of Representatives in the House, according to advocates for the legislation.

Proponents of the legislation say that it would eliminate the predominance of special interests in politics without tilting the playing field against those politicians that chose to take part. They believe it's the right time for an election-financing system overhaul.

For starters, in the White House sits a president who has supported such measures -- first in the Illinois State Senate and then in Congress.

"I think this is a sort of, 'if you build it he will come' situation," Waterston said. "[Obama] does have a lot of things that he has to deal with, but if past is prologue, the likelihood of him supporting this is very strong ... If the Congress were to present this as something they would wanted to do in regulating their own house, it seems to me the odds are really very good that he would be behind it."

Moreover, with a steady stream of scandals related to campaign contributions, and with the financial sector under intense scrutiny for lobbying lawmakers, proponents of the clean elections law believe they can succeed where past efforts have failed.

"How different would our conversation about AIG be if we knew that $10 billion hadn't gone into federal elections from the financial sector over the last twenty years?" asked Waterston. "We might have different opinions, we might like or dislike legislators' ideas about what to do about the crisis, but we wouldn't be wondering if any one of them were on the take or whether their opinion was being colored by who was helping them get elected. It would just change the conversation radically."

Asked whether he would like to test drive a public-financing system in a run for office of his own, the famed T.V. actor replied: "Heck no. I want to be the guy who helps people who really know about this."

The bill would provide congressional candidates who choose to participate with a pool of public funds, along with many additional avenues by which to raise cash and buy air time on television.

Under the Fair Elections Now Act proposal, House and Senate candidates could raise a large number of small contributions -- limited to $100 -- from their home states. Public funding for House candidates would kick in once that person collected 1,500 contributions and raised more than $50,000. The candidate would then receive $900,000 in Fair Elections funding: 40 percent for the primary and 60 percent for the general election.

Senate candidates would have to raise contributions -- again limited to $100 -- that came to ten percent of the primary Fair Elections funding in order to qualify. That candidate would then receive $1.25 million plus another $250,000 per congressional district in their state, with the money split 33 percent for the primary and 67 percent for the general election.

The candidates would still be allowed to raise small donations once in the system, again only from within their home state but with every dollar matched by four from the Fair Elections Fund. And when it came to purchasing television time, a candidate in the public system would receive a 20 percent reduction from the lowest broadcast rates. Winning primary candidates would be eligible for media vouchers following their victories.

The goal, those who have crafted the legislation say, is to wean politicians off the traditional reliance on big-time donors while freeing up time for them to actually legislate and/or talk to voters.

"Members complain about how much time they have to spend fundraising," said one official. "Well ,here is a way out for them."

As for the support of both parties in Congress -- integral to any passage of legislation -- the official said that he expected "additional Republican sponsorship in the Senate as well as some in the House."