Campaign finance bill goes into homestretch

McCain says he's bracing for tough votes as debate in Senate enters last days

March 26, 2001|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - With one week to go in the debate, now comes the hard part for campaign finance reform.

Senate backers have fended off unfriendly amendments to the legislation, which aims to ban unlimited "soft money" that is pouring into political parties from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.

Heading for the homestretch in his six-year drive for reform, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday that he was bracing for tough votes, even as he outlined areas of possible agreement that could lead to Senate passage of a bill as early as Thursday.

His co-sponsor, Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, sounded even more upbeat.

"I think we're going to win this. I think we're going to ban soft money," he predicted on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Still ahead for the Senate debate:

A key test, probably tomorrow, will be a vote on a rival proposal by Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, to limit some soft money contributions but not ban them. Soft money is unlimited contributions given for vague party-building purposes. The alternative measure has drawn support from some lawmakers and tacit approval from the White House. But McCain and Feingold have rejected the Hagel bill as too weak to qualify as reform.

One expected amendment would require all of the McCain-Feingold bill to be thrown out if even one provision is found to be unconstitutional. This "un-severability" clause could be the downfall of the reform, since some of the provisions are untested in the courts.

A crucial agreement is needed on whether to raise the limits for "hard money," the strictly regulated contributions given to individual federal campaigns. That limit is now $1,000 per person, the same as it was in 1974 when the last major campaign reform act was passed.

McCain and Feingold said they were prepared to raise that limit, which adjusted for inflation would be about $3,000. But neither would say how high it should go.

In a key development last week, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles, the assistant Republican leader, announced that he could accept a ban on soft money donations to parties in return for raising the $1,000 limit on donations to candidates.

But Democrats are more wary of the increase, and McCain called the negotiations "delicate."

At the same time, McCain laid out the possible elements of a compromise on funding for political parties. He suggested that instead of taking unlimited soft money for ill-defined party-building purposes, the parties could set up distinct funds for constructing buildings, buying computers and other capital expenses.

Going into the final days of what has been called an old-fashioned, unpredictable and generally rancor-free debate, leaders on both sides of the issue praised the tone.

The mood has been slightly different on the other side of Capitol Hill. On NBC's "Meet the Press," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas criticized the bill as an abridgment of freedom and vowed, "I'll work as hard as I can to beat this."

But a similar bill has passed twice before in the House, and McCain brushed off DeLay's threat and predicted an easy repeat win there, if the Senate can pass a bill.

McCain also expressed optimism on winning President Bush's signature, saying on ABC that "every indication that we've gotten from him is that he wants to work with us."

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