Campaign finance bill clears test

Senate separates soft-money ban from court challenges

`One step at a time'

Passage expected Monday

fight in House likely

March 30, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Campaign finance legislation that would rid the system of the limitless donations to parties known as "soft money" cleared its last major hurdle yesterday and appeared headed for passage in the Senate early next week.

Culminating nearly two weeks of unscripted, often fractious debate, the Senate voted by a surprisingly wide margin of 57-43 to defeat an amendment that might have doomed the overall measure. Under that amendment, the ban on soft money would have been voided if a separate section of the bill - restricting political activity by corporations, unions and outside groups - was declared unconstitutional.

Thirteen Republicans joined with 44 Democrats on what the bill's chief sponsors, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, called the ultimate test of Senate sentiment on whether to outlaw the huge, largely unregulated flows of soft money, which have soared to record levels. Soft money has effectively allowed both parties to get around the limits on direct contributions to candidates.

"I really want to thank all my colleagues in the Senate for doing something that makes me awfully proud," Feingold said after the vote. "There is a lot of money that will come out of their campaigns. There is a lot of insecurity in terms of their future political careers that comes as a result of this."

During the days of debate and consideration of endless amendments, supporters have held together a fragile coalition in support of the overall legislation. The measure picked up additional supporters through a compromise under which individual donations to candidates and parties were increased. Senate approval of the overall bill is expected Monday.

But McCain and Feingold acknowledged that even with a Senate victory within their grasp, they still face stiff resistance from Republican leaders in the House - as well as some misgivings among Democrats there. A vote in the House may be months away.

"We don't underestimate the challenge, but we are guardedly confident that we will pass it through the House of Representatives," McCain said. "And we are pleased that the president said that he'd like to sign a bill. We take one step at a time."

At his news conference yesterday, Bush said of the legislation: "I'll take a look at it when it makes my desk. And if it improves the system, I'll sign it. I look forward to signing a good piece of legislation."

McCain, Bush's popular but unsuccessful rival for the Republican nomination, made campaign finance reform the central plank in his presidential race. Yesterday, McCain was greeted with a burst of applause from tourists as he emerged after the vote against the amendment. The legislation would rewrite the federal campaign finance rules for the first time since the post-Watergate reforms enacted 25 years ago. Previous attempts to pass such overhauls have been made repeatedly without success.

Among the wavering Democrats who supplied the winning margin was Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. Sarbanes said he remained concerned that a successful court challenge to one section of the bill might create an imbalance in the newly designed system but had "concluded that it was important to move this bill forward."

Maryland's other Democratic senator, Barbara A. Mikulski, who voted consistently with the McCain-Feingold forces, was also among the 44 Democrats who voted to reject the amendment. "It would have derailed the bill after we've come so far," Mikulski said.

The leading opponent of McCain-Feingold, Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, chided those who voted to reject the amendment: "This is a stunningly stupid thing to do, my colleagues." McConnell said that by abolishing soft money for the parties, the legislation would shift greater influence to outside groups that are not subject to contribution limits, disclosure requirements or other regulation.

Though the bill would impose new curbs on political advertising financed by special interest groups shortly before an election, McConnell said he was confident that those curbs would be struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who, like McConnell, has led his party's senatorial campaign committee, also found the possibility of taking a huge source of funds away from the parties - without linking it to the success of curbs on political advertising by interest groups - a frightening prospect.

"American politics will be fought over the heads of the candidates," warned Torricelli, who backed the failed amendment.

But on the vote, a solid majority sided with the position of Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, who said, "We have to decide if we're for campaign reform or not." If a court challenge to the curbs on outside groups resulted in killing the soft money ban, Kerry argued, the most crucial element of the legislation would be lost.

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