Campaign donor limits approved

U.S. Senate agrees to a change that ties caps to inflation rate

Parties compromise

Soft-money backers prepare challenge on constitutional angle

March 29, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to raise the federal limits on donations to candidates and parties, under a compromise that supporters hoped would ensure passage of legislation to overhaul the campaign finance system for the first time in a quarter-century.

Under the deal, approved by 84-16, the $1,000 limit on the amount an individual can give a candidate would rise to $2,000. Donors would be able to give up to $37,500 overall to candidates and parties per year, up from the current $25,000. Both caps would continue to rise with inflation.

The new limits would help offset the loss of the unlimited, largely unregulated "soft money" donations to parties, which would be abolished by the legislation.

"This gives us an opportunity to meet the future, and the basis where, hopefully, both sides can come together and vote for this bill," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who was one of the authors of the compromise.

Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who joined with Feinstein in crafting the deal, said the higher caps would "help challengers and will help our parties do the legitimate things that parties are supposed to do."

So successful was the bargain struck yesterday that it drew the backing even of senators who had earlier denounced the idea of raising donor limits as a step in the wrong direction. It also won the votes of all 50 Republicans, including those who have said there should be no limits on campaign donations at all.

Among the 16 Democrats who opposed the measure was Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland's other Democratic senator, voted in favor of raising the limits on individual contributions to candidates.

Sen. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, had earlier complained that any increase in such limits would favor the Republican Party at the expense of Democratic candidates. But Daschle was among those who supported the compromise "reluctantly, because it is necessary to keep us moving forward."

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has been the leading force behind the drive to reduce the influence of big donors in federal campaigns, thanked his colleagues for coming "to a common ground so we can advance the cause of this effort."

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who is McCain's principal partner on campaign finance overhaul, added: "I think McCain-Feingold is on its way to passage."

But facing a deadline of tonight for completing work on the legislation, McCain and Feingold still face a crucial vote on whether to protect the overall measure from constitutional challenges that might result in certain sections being thrown out by the courts. The vote on this issue represents the last, best hope of the bill's opponents to halt its momentum in the Senate.

The legislation is expected to have an easier time moving through the House, which has approved similar bills in the past. Republican leaders there are divided between two camps: "Get it out of the way quickly" and "over my dead body," said John P. Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

President Bush, who has never supported a ban on soft money, has nevertheless signaled that he is inclined to sign the measure if it reaches his desk.

His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said yesterday that opponents of McCain-Feingold should not expect the president to provide the political cover for them by vetoing the measure if Congress approves it.

"What people on the Hill need to hear from the president is that, this year, campaign finance reform involves real bullets," Fleischer said. "It may very well happen, and he wants to be able to sign campaign finance reform."

Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican who discussed the measure with Bush earlier in the week, said: "I don't know what he stands for exactly, but I know he's in no mood to veto this bill."

The heart of the McCain-Feingold measure is a ban on soft money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals -- which totaled $480 million in the last election cycle and which critics say has bought unfair access and influence for big donors. But the bill would also bar unions, corporations and outside advocacy groups from running campaign ads that mention specific candidates in the 60 days before a general election or in the 30 days before a primary.

McCain and some of his allies had long acknowledged that they would probably have to agree to an increase in the $1,000 limit that an individual can donate to a candidate as part of the trade-off for banning soft money.

Many senators complained that the limits established in 1974 were so tight that they helped create the soft-money loophole. That loophole, which both major parties have increasingly exploited, permits the collection of unlimited sums, ostensibly in the name of "party-building" activities, such as get-out-the-vote drives.

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