Senate OKs campaign reform bill

`Soft money' banned, `issue ads' restricted

Enron tips balance

Bush says he'll sign bill

Opponents pledge court battle, allege limits on free speech

March 21, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - After an uphill climb lasting nearly seven years, the drive to overhaul federal campaign finance law to try to curb the influence of special interests succeeded yesterday with a final Senate vote of approval.

The measure, approved 60-40 by the Senate, now goes to President Bush, who said last night that he would sign it into law despite objections to parts of it.

Opponents of the legislation vowed to mount an immediate challenge in court.

Eleven Republicans joined all but two Democrats - Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - in support of the measure.

The final tally came after 68 senators voted to break a Republican-led filibuster against the bill.

Supporters celebrated what they called a landmark victory - the most far-reaching reform of campaign spending law in a quarter-century, since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. They said it would cleanse the system of the unlimited "soft money" contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that critics say buy access and influence and drown out the voices of average citizens.

"What we've really done for a couple hundred million Americans is give them the opportunity to be heard again in our nation's capital," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who made campaign finance reform the cornerstone of his 2000 run for the White House and has been the issue's most tireless advocate in Congress. He appeared close to tears at a rally of supporters.

Bush had never endorsed the legislation, which many Republicans have denounced as an unconstitutional infringement of the right to free speech. But the president had made clear that he would not provide Republicans with political cover by vetoing it - as his father had vetoed a similar campaign finance measure 10 years ago.

Last night, Bush issued a statement saying the legislation "does present some legitimate constitutional questions."

The president said he believes the best campaign finance reform would be to require full and timely disclosure of political contributions. "The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall, and I will sign them into law," he added.

Opponents said they would soon take the battle to court, seeking to overturn provisions of the measure as unconstitutional limits on free speech. In particular, they argued that the limits on political ads by outside groups, 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election, are glaringly unconstitutional.

"The vote today is not the end," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who led the opposition and plans to be the lead plaintiff in the court challenge. "I'm confident the Supreme Court will step in and defend the Constitution."

In addition to the ban on soft money to parties and the restrictions on "issue ads" by outside groups, the measure would double the amount that an individual could give to a candidate for Congress or president to $2,000, from $1,000.

In addition, House and Senate candidates who face wealthy, self-financed opponents would be able to accept higher direct contributions.

Under the legislation, individuals could continue to donate up to $10,000 a year in soft money to a state or local party. But that money could be used only for voter registration or get-out-the-vote activity and could not be diverted to help individual candidates.

The legislation is designed so that even if some provisions of it are struck down by the courts, other sections could still take effect. Opponents of the overall measure favor one of its provisions, which would raise the limits on direct contributions to individual campaigns.

"What a great triumph of freedom it would be" if the ban on soft money was struck down and the increase in direct contributions remained, said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican. Gramm, like McConnell, argued that a ban on soft money would have the unintended effect of shifting power away from the political parties to special-interest groups because such groups could continue to collect unlimited contributions.

Supporters of the measure said they wonder how strictly the Federal Election Commission will enforce the new provisions because some Republican members of the commission opposed the legislation.

"Our work isn't done," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who was a lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. He and his co-sponsor, Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, spent much of yesterday on the Senate floor watching the votes.

The measure approved yesterday is a more modest proposal than was originally backed by its sponsors. They initially sought limits on spending by candidates, free and reduced-cost television air time, a ban on political action committees, and the soft money ban. Earlier proposals offered over the years included public financing of congressional campaigns.

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