Senate OKs raising fund limits for foes of wealthy candidates

Amendment to create `more level playing field' approved in 70-30 vote

March 21, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As its first step toward campaign finance legislation, the Senate voted yesterday to raise the dollar limits on donations for candidates facing opponents who finance their own campaigns - a move some senators acknowledged was intended to protect themselves from such wealthy challengers.

Most of the Republicans and nearly half the Democrats joined in the 70-30 tally in favor of allowing some candidates to collect direct contributions of three times the current limits. The change would benefit those facing an opponent who plans to tap a personal fortune to spend beyond levels determined by a state population.

"A wealthy candidate is the only person in the country who can put an unlimited amount of money into his or her campaign," argued Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican. "This amendment will move toward a more level playing field."

Five senators spent more than $1 million of their own money to win re-election last year, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, who defeated a Republican incumbent after pouring more than $10 million in personal funds into the race. Sen. Jon Corzine, a New Jersey Democrat and former investment banker, spent more than $60 million to win an open seat.

Some of the most fervent advocates of overhauling the system to curb the flow of unlimited, unregulated money into federal races complained that the amendment conflicts with the goal of fairness that campaign finance legislation is intended to achieve.

"This puts even more political power in the hands of fewer and fewer people," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. "We know wealthy donors will control the field more" if contribution limits are raised. "This isn't reform. This makes a mockery of reform."

But the so-called "millionaire" amendment was accepted by the chief sponsors of the campaign finance legislation, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, even though they had worked Monday evening to defeat a similar proposal.

"We know this is a very emotional issue," McCain said of his colleagues, several of whom described their own campaigns against well-heeled rival. "This addresses a concern that literally every nonmillionaire member of this body has: that they'll wake up some day and find out that some millionaire wants to run for their seat, and intends to spend up to $70 million of their own money in order to win."

Feingold said he and McCain concluded that the amendment would not threaten the chances of success for their broader proposal to ban unlimited "soft money" to political parties from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Concern among his colleagues about the threat from wealthy challengers ran so high, Feingold said, "There was no way we were not going to have to address this somehow."

Also, the version of the amendment approved yesterday was rewritten so that the same standard would not apply to all states, since the costs of campaigns vary according to population.

Maryland's two senators, both Democrats, split over the issue.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said he supported the amendment because he shared the desire of the majority to "bring under restraint this big personal money in politics." Barbara A. Mikulski voted against the amendment, saying it created a double standard between candidates and between states and amounted to a "back way of raising contribution limits."

The amendment was approved on the second day of two weeks of what promises to be spirited debate over a bipartisan attempt to overhaul the federal campaign financing system for the first time in a quarter-century.

A few hours later, the Senate struck down efforts to tighten control over donations by political action committees and to bar lobbyists from donating to lawmakers while Congress is in session. Both ideas were criticized as impractical and probably unconstitutional.

As senators worked through a pile of amendments, they seemed headed toward a clash between the McCain-Feingold bill and an alternative that would limit soft money but not ban it.

Under the current system, the parties are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of soft money - which is supposed to be used for "party building" activity, such as drives to get out the vote. But increasingly, the parties have managed to spend that money to benefit individual candidates.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who is the chief sponsor of the alternative bill, announced that support was growing for his proposal to limit to $60,000 the amount of soft money any contributor could give per year, while raising the limits on direct donations candidates could receive.

Hagel and his allies complained that by banning soft money to political parties, the McCain-Feingold bill would shift influence to wealthy individuals and independent interest groups that would not be subject to the same limitations in promoting candidates.

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