WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday all but buried a bill to overhaul the country's campaign-financing system.
In successive procedural votes, senators failed to halt debate on two competing proposals. That left a stalemate and prevented an up-or-down decision on the legislation itself.
Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the majority leader and an all-out opponent of the bill, said the votes showed that there was "no consensus" on the issue and then moved the Senate on to other business. Lott said he had "held up my end of the bargain" by allowing 22 hours of debate on legislation.
Supporters of the basic bill, mostly Democrats, accused Lott of burying it by rigging debate, barring any amendments other than his own, and then blocking a vote on that measure when Democrats and Republican defectors appeared ready to defeat it. Proponents vowed to continue a long-shot fight this week to keep the bill's faint hopes alive.
"We're going to prevail sooner or later," said Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, who sponsored the bill with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But yesterday, when Feingold and the other 44 Democrats needed 15 Republicans to bring the bill to a vote, they got only eight.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has led the floor fight against the bill for the last two weeks, declared: "McCain-Feingold is dead. This effort to put the government in charge of political discussion is not going to pass now, is not going to pass tomorrow, is not going to pass ever."
The bill would ban the unlimited and unregulated contributions known as soft money and more clearly define advertisements that champion candidates and those that are supposed to advocate issues. Such advertisements have been used as thinly veiled attacks in urging a candidate's defeat in recent campaigns.
In a statement after the votes, President Clinton said: "The Republican leadership and a minority of the Senate used procedural maneuvers to block the obvious will of a majority of the United States senators to support bipartisan campaign-finance reform legislation."
Fifty-three senators, all 45 Democrats and eight Republicans, voted in favor of bringing the campaign overhaul legislation to an up-or-down vote. That would have been enough to pass the underlying bill if they all reaffirmed their vote for the legislation but not enough under the rules of the Senate to free it from a filibuster. Sixty votes were needed to do that.
So despite their plans to fight on, supporters of the bill face steep odds. As majority leader, Lott exercises near-total control over the Senate's schedule. The bill's supporters would have to score a series of procedural victories to create momentum behind the bill and then win the 60 votes necessary to head off a filibuster promised by opponents. All 45 Senate Democrats and four Republicans support the legislation itself.
In the House, Republican leaders who also oppose the bill said the Senate's action yesterday strengthened their resolve to avoid bringing a similar campaign finance bill to the floor this year.
Most of the maneuvering this week has centered on an amendment offered by Lott to require labor unions to get workers' permission to use their dues for political purposes. The AFL-CIO opposed this provision as payback for labor's support of Democratic candidates in last year's election.
Democrats threatened to filibuster the amendment rather than have it attached to the bill. Senators voted, 52 to 48, yesterday to end debate on the amendment, eight votes short of the 60 necessary.
Senators then turned to a motion by Democrats to end debate and force a vote on the bill itself. Voting "aye" strongly suggested support for the underlying bill but did not guarantee it. That crucial vote, to invoke cloture, fell short, 53 to 47.
All 45 Senate Democrats voted to end debate on the bill. The eight Republicans who voted the same way were McCain, John H. Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, James M. Jeffords of Vermont, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
Of those, only McCain, Thompson, Specter and Collins have endorsed the bill. The other four Republicans have objected to various provisions in the bill but are among the most likely candidates to support the legislation if it is revised.
The only hint of drama in yesterday's otherwise scripted votes happened when Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic leader, and other Democrats huddled around Snowe just before the vote to end debate on Lott's amendment.
Democrats were prepared to reverse their original strategy and vote with the Republicans to end debate and force a vote on Lott's amendment, but only if Snowe agreed to vote with them to kill Lott's measure when it came up.