WASHINGTON — The story is told of the corrupt Albany judge who called opposing trial lawyers into his chambers.

"You offered me a $5,000 campaign contribution to throw this case to the plaintiff," said the fair-minded judge, "and defendant's lawyer here just offered me $10,000 to find for his client. Now how about plaintiff giving me $5,000 more, evening things up — and we try the case on the merits?"

Whether the bidding war that is now American politics will continue in this fashion is to be decided in the Senate this week. Every senator knows the subject cold and need not rely on staff expertise or party discipline for guidance. Rarely do voters see such a revealing free-for-all.

Money talks, but money is not speech. That, in essence, is the offense and defense of campaign finance reformers.

That heavy political contributions influence officeholders is beyond dispute. Money for "access" rarely qualifies as prosecutable bribery, but the biggest givers are usually the biggest receivers. The pros know that a quo has a way of following a quid, and the public is not stupid.

The purchase of a pardon by Marc Rich haunts the Senate this week. The stain spreads; now we learn that the fugitive billionaire, with $250,000 to the Anti-Defamation League, induced its national director to lobby President Bill Clinton for forgiveness and thereby bring glee to hearts of anti-Semites. (Abe Foxman should resign to demonstrate that ethical blindness has consequences.)

But the hurdle that Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold must jump is this: Does the restriction of money in campaigns deny anyone freedom of speech?

Of course it does. But we abridge free speech all the time, in protecting copyright, in ensuring defendants' rights to fair trials, in guarding privacy, in forbidding malicious defamation and incitement to riot. Because no single one of our rights is absolute, we restrain one when it treads too heavily on another.

That's why our courts have held repeatedly in the past century that the Constitution permits restrictions on political contributions. Just as antitrust laws encouraged competition in business, anti-contribution laws have enhanced competition in politics. Freedom of speech is diminished when one voice who can afford to buy the time and space is allowed to drown out the other side.

Washington opponents of campaign finance reform offer less lofty arguments, too.

1. "Holding down the number of paid political spots will increase the power of the media at the expense of the political parties."

And what do my ideological soulmates find so terrible about that? The wheezing liberal voices of the Bosnywash corridor are as often as not clobbered by the intellectual firepower of conservative columnists, Wall Street Journal editorialists and good-looking talking heads. Wake up and smell the right-wing cappuccino, fellas.

2. "If we close the soft-money loophole, money will soon find another way to reach politicians."

Fine; that will provide a campaign platform for the next generation's great white hat. The tree of liberty must constantly be refreshed by the figurative blood of tyrannous fund-raisers, as Jefferson almost said.

3. "If this goo-goo abomination passes with all its amendments, and any one item is struck down by the courts, then the whole thing must go up in smoke."

Do Republicans really want to hold that unseverability gun to the head of the Rehnquist court? Why, if you're so hot for freedom of speech, tempt the high court to weaken the First Amendment by letting a questionable part of an all-or-nothing law through?

On Tuesday the senators seeking to keep in place the Clinton-McAuliffe fund-raising abuses that so polluted the '90s will offer the Hagel substitute for the McCain-Feingold bill. It's sabotage, plain and simple, "limiting" soft-money gifts to a half-million dollars per fat-cat family per election cycle

Senators, fresh from offending billionaire candidates and from thumbing the eye of the powerful broadcasters' lobby, should cherry-pick a few items from the Hagel substitute, up the hard-money limit to $2,500, and take their chances on a sore-loser filibuster by voting down the all-or-nothing trick.

If that's the will the Senate works, I think President Bush would tut-tut and sign McCain-Feingold. That's because I'm an optimist and believe in the two-party system.

New York Times News Service