More hard knocks expected for effort to bar soft money

Bush-backed move to replace ban with limits fails in Senate

March 28, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A measure designed to reduce the influence of big money in politics easily survived a stiff challenge yesterday to its key provision banning unlimited contributions to political parties.

But the campaign-finance proposal of Sens. John McCain and Russell D. Feingold could face its most critical test today. Opponents will attempt to attach an amendment that would void the ban on "soft money" if another portion of the law is ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

Among the undecided Democrats whose votes are considered key to the outcome of that fight is Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland.

Supporters of the campaign-overhaul package say that defeating the so-called "poison-pill" amendment may be their most difficult challenge yet, as the Senate debate enters its eighth day.

"We have good days, and we have bad days," said McCain, an Arizona Republican. "We're just going to keep inching along."

McCain's proposal would outlaw the raising and spending of soft money, the unlimited, largely unregulated dollars given by wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions for party-building activities.

Proponents won the backing of 60 senators yesterday to beat back an attempt supported by President Bush that would have replaced the soft money ban with a proposal allowing soft money contributions to continue, though with an annual limit of $60,000 per donor.

"We picked up several new converts," said Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. Twelve Republicans joined 48 Democrats in defeating the alternative, which was proposed by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Maryland Democrats Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski both voted against the continued raising of soft money.

A leading opponent of outlawing soft money acknowledged after yesterday's vote that it is now clear a majority of senators favors a ban. "If any bill leaves the Senate, it's not going to have soft money in it," said Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Democrats wavering

Proponents of campaign-finance overhaul say the most severe threat they face is an amendment, which could be introduced as early as today by McConnell, that would void the soft-money ban if a key portion of the law is judged to be unconstitutional. Bush has said he favors such a provision but has not indicated whether he would veto any bill that fails to contain it.

Feingold said they are having trouble keeping all the Democrats in line in opposition to the amendment. McCain said they were "waffling."

Among the holdouts is Sarbanes, who says he won't make a decision on the "non-severability" issue until he sees the final shape of the bill and can determine exactly what's at stake.

"If a major element of the bill is struck down, it might throw the rest of it out of balance," said Sarbanes.

Feingold has charged that any Democrat who votes with McConnell is casting an "anti-reform" vote.

Said Sarbanes: "Does he think he's helping his cause, saying things like that?"

Mikulski, who is firmly allied with McCain and Feingold on the severability issue, said she voted against an amendment on Monday night because she feared it was legally questionable and might be used to void the entire law.

"I want McCain and Feingold to pass as clean as it can be," she said.

The provision approved on Monday would impose curbs on political advertising by special-interest groups.

Among those who question the constitutionality of that provision is McConnell, who joined other Republican opponents of McCain-Feingold in voting to add the amendment to the measure.

McConnell said he voted for the amendment, even though he considers it "grossly, crassly unconstitutional," because he hopes that including it in the measure it will ultimately result in voiding any soft-money ban.

The amendment was introduced by Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

It would prohibit advocacy groups, such as the National Rifle Association or the National Abortion Rights Action League, from running campaign ads within 60 days of a general election or 30 days before a primary if they mention a candidate by name.

Opponents say the measure would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech.

The McCain-Feingold measure already contains a prohibition on similar campaign ads-known as "issue ads"-paid for by corporations or labor unions.

Sarbanes was among those who voted in favor of the Wellstone amendment, in part because, he later acknowledged, he mistakenly believed it contained language preventing it from being used to void the whole bill.

The Maryland senator said he had been attracted to the amendment because he was once the target of an outside advocacy group-nearly 20 years ago in his first Senate re-election contest.

In 1982, the National Conservative Political Action Committee spent about $750,000 to try to defeat him, he said.

Without the Wellstone amendment, the McCain-Feingold bill would do nothing to curb such expenditures, Sarbanes noted. "I think that's a very huge gap," he said.

Limit increase falls

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