Senate approves major overhaul of campaign funding

Day goes to McCain, but long battle expected in House

Parties `quieted,' foes fear

April 03, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Advocates of overhauling the campaign finance system won a resounding victory yesterday when the Senate approved a measure intended to cleanse the system of the unlimited donations to parties that critics say buy unequal access and influence.

By a 59-41 vote, the Senate sent on to the House legislation that would revise the law governing political contributions for the first time in a quarter-century. But the measure faces a prolonged battle in the House. It could also be subject to negotiations with the White House and is almost certain to face court challenges if it becomes law.

The measure passed with the support of 12 of the 50 Republicans and all but three of the 50 Democrats. Both Maryland Democrats voted for it.

The vote was a personal victory for Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who had fought for campaign finance overhaul for more than six years and had put the issue at the center of his presidential campaign last year.

"I have never been prouder to be a member of the United States Senate," McCain said as the votes were about to be cast. "I asked at the start of this debate for my colleagues to take a risk for America. I will go to my grave deeply grateful for the honor of being a part of it."

McCain said he would wait to celebrate until the measure is enacted and ready for signing in the Rose Garden by President Bush, who defeated him for the Republican nomination.

Opponents warned that the legislation would, in effect, mean the demise of the political parties, which have served to transfer to candidates vast sums of limitless, largely unregulated "soft money" from corporations, unions and individuals. Such soft money would be outlawed by the legislation.

Critics warned that more influence over the electoral system would shift to special interest groups and wealthy individuals who could spend money independently of the parties without limits.

"Welcome to the brave new world, where the voices of the parties are quieted and the voices of billionaires are enhanced," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who led the opposition to the measure in the Senate. "You are not going to take the money out of politics; you're going to take the party out of politics."

Bush, though never a strong advocate of rewriting the campaign finance laws, has signaled that he would probably sign overhaul legislation if it lands on his desk.

The president's stance, combined with yesterday's Senate vote, creates a new dynamic in the House, which passed similar legislation by wide margins in 1998 and 1999.

"He'll look at it when it reaches his desk," Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman, said of Bush's position on the campaign finance measure. "It's still going through the legislative process."

Meredith McGehee, a lobbyist for the reform group Common Cause, cautioned: "We've had strong bipartisan majorities in the past, but that doesn't mean there won't be a lot of people having second thoughts now that this looks like it might become law. Already, we can see forces trying to bring this bill to a halt."

Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, the sponsors of the House version of the legislation, stood at the back of the Senate chamber last night to share in the victory. But the next step for the campaign finance measure is not clear.

House Republican leaders have no plan for taking up the measure. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the Republican committee that raises money specifically for House candidates, suggested over the weekend that it might not be scheduled for a House vote until the fall.

Even so, the Senate action yesterday represented what Sen. Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who is McCain's co-sponsor, called "the best chance we've had in nearly two decades to rebuild the election system almost washed away by soft money."

If enacted, the measure would rewrite the federal campaign finance laws established more than 25 years ago in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Its key provision would ban soft money. Soft money donations - which surged to a record high of nearly $500 million in the past election - are supposed to pay for "party building" activities. But increasingly, both major parties have used soft money to aid individual candidates, in effect bypassing the limits on direct donations to campaigns.

To cushion that blow, the legislation would double the 27-year-old limits on the amount that individuals could give to a candidate per election, to $2,000 from $1,000. And it would raise the total that a donor could give to candidates and the national parties combined, to $75,000 from $50,000, per two-year election cycle.

Those new ceilings would rise with inflation and come in response to complaints that the limits imposed in 1974 have not kept pace with the soaring costs of campaigns.

In addition, the limit on contributions to the national parties would rise from $20,000 to $25,000 per calendar year.

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