Senate approves landmark campaign finance bill
WASHINGTON – The Senate approved landmark legislation Monday to reduce the influence of big money in political campaigns, capping a fierce, six-year struggle that catapulted Sen. John McCain to national prominence.
The 59-41 vote sent the measure to the House, where a tough fight is expected even though similar bills have been approved twice in recent years. Beyond that, President Bush has not said definitively whether he will sign the bill, and, if the measure is approved, a court challenge to its constitutionality is a certainty.
”He’ll look at it when it reaches his desk. It’s still going through the legislative process,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
Still, supporters hailed the Senate’s action as a signal that campaign finance laws are likely to be changed for the first time since the Watergate era. Passage will ”put a lasting mark on the record of democracy,” said Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the leading Democratic supporter.
The legislation ”will let us get away from the obscene money chase,” said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.
”I asked at the start of this debate for my colleagues to take a risk for America,” said McCain a few moments before the roll was called. ”In a few minutes, I believe we will do just that. I will go to my grave deeply grateful for the honor of being part of it.”
Not everyone was pleased with the outcome.
”The bill is fatally unconstitutional” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who fought to the end against a bill he has long opposed as an infringement on free speech. In addition, he said, ”The underlying theory is that there is too much money in politics, in spite of the fact that last year Americans spent more on potato chips than they did on politics.”
The roster of opponents grew by one Democrat, as Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina attacked the bill as unconstitutional and said it would weaken the influence of political parties while enhancing special interests. ”At least I am sober enough to vote no,” he said.
Voting for the measure were 47 Democrats and 12 Republicans. There were 38 Republicans and 3 Democrats opposed.
The legislation would ban so-called soft money, typically five- and six-figure contributions to political parties by unions, corporations and individuals. Republicans and Democrats combined took in nearly $500 million in such funds over the last two years.
It also would ban certain types of broadcast advertising close to an election. The provision, attacked by McConnell and others as unconstitutional, is an attempt to stop the flood of ”issue ads” by outside groups that skirted current legal restrictions by avoiding the direct advocacy of a candidate’s election or defeat.
In addition, the bill would raise limits on contributions that candidates and political parties may use for direct campaign expenses, the first increases since legislation was enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. The existing $1,000 limit on donations to candidates would rise to $2,000 per election, and an individual would be permitted to give $75,000 to all candidates and parties combined over a two-year election cycle, up from $25,000. Those limits would be adjusted for inflation in the future.
No date has been set for House consideration of the issue, but supporters have said they hope for a vote later this spring. Longtime critics such as GOP Whip Tom DeLay of Texas have announced plans to try and defeat the bill, and even some Democratic supporters appear to be having second thoughts.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., who has supported previous versions of the bill, recently told reporters he favors no change in the contribution limits to candidates and parties, for example.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle expressed similar concerns, but ultimately accepted an increase and played a pivotal role in keeping support for the measure from eroding.
The final Senate vote marked a triumph for McCain, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and others who have pressed the legislation since 1995 despite a string of Republican filibusters.
While Watergate prompted the last major overhaul of campaign finance laws, McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five scandal of the early 1990s – he was not cited for any wrongdoing – helped spark his interest in the issue.
A furor over fund-raising practices in President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, including Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and White House coffees with the president for high-dollar donors, gave McCain fresh fodder.
He showed a willingness to clash with his GOP colleagues, often in acerbic terms, and made the ban on soft money into the centerpiece of his bid for last year’s Republican presidential nomination. He stunned the party establishment when he won the leadoff New Hampshire primary 13 months ago, and later displayed an ability to attract the support of millions of independent voters.
He returned to the Senate this year, his national standing enhanced and his determination to press the legislation undiminished.
At the same time, Democratic gains in the elections provided additional impetus, and when Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., a former opponent, announced his support over the winter, prospects continued to improve.
Debate began two weeks ago after a bit of street theater in which McCain and Feingold walked from the Capitol to the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic parties.
”It’s time to end business as usual,” McCain said that day. Republicans greeted the procession with studied silence; Democrats welcomed him and Feingold with a banner professing support.
Constitutional arguments ran throughout the debate.
McConnell, who spent long hours on the Senate floor leading opposition to the bill, said it ”reaches right in and rips the heart out of the First Amendment. No pretense, no artifice, no question about it.”
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