Senate votes to ease limits on donations to candidates
WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to raise the limits on contributions to candidates and political parties, hoping to strike a balance on campaign finance legislation one day after moving to flush millions of dollars out of the nation’s political system.
The 84-16 vote on a hastily crafted compromise cleared the latest – but not the last – hurdle blocking passage of legislation pressed by Sen. John McCain and his allies to curtail the influence of big money in politics.
”Money is not evil in and of itself,” said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., shortly before the Senate agreed to increase donation limits enacted in the wake of the Watergate scandal a quarter-century ago.
Donors would be permitted to give $2,000 a year each to candidates of their choice, and $37,500 overall to candidates and political parties for use in direct campaign expenses. These limits would rise with inflation in the future.
The current limits are $1,000 and $25,000.
The compromise called for smaller increases than Thompson originally wanted, but more than Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed in an alternative that caused a legislative stand-off and prompted closed-door negotiations in a meeting room a few paces off the Senate floor.
Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the leading Democratic supporter of the bill, emerged to say he would give his support reluctantly to the increases. ”We have to make this move,” he said, or else risk the unraveling of a coalition that has been painstakingly put together in nearly two weeks of floor debate.
Even with the compromise, other obstacles remain, including a thorny question of whether the Supreme Court should be directed to consider the measure one provision at a time, or render a verdict on its constitutionality as a whole. Lawmakers on all sides of the bill have raised questions about the constitutionality of a variety of its provisions, and the importance of the issue was reinforced during the day when the Southeastern Legal Foundation announced plans to file suit challenging the bill if it becomes law.
In addition, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has not yet agreed to set a time for a vote on final passage, raising the threat, at least, that he or others might attempt to mount a late filibuster against a measure he has long opposed.
The overall legislation would ban so-called soft money, the unlimited donations that individuals, unions and corporations make to the political parties, and the Senate signaled support for passage of that provision on Tuesday on a vote of 60-40. Together the two parties raised $480 million in such donations in the election cycle that ended last November.
The measure also would place restrictions on political advertising within 60 days of an election, an attempt to rein in ”issue ads” by parties and outside groups. These are financed with unlimited contributions and stop barely short of advocating the election or defeat of named candidates.
As drafted, the legislation would make little change in the hard money limits enacted in 1974, and supporters of the bill expressed elation at having finessed a major obstacle in the path of final passage.
While the vote to uphold the ban on soft money was a landmark in the debate over campaign finance legislation, supporters recognized from the beginning they would have to accept some increase in the donations that flow to individual candidates.
Thompson proposed allowing a donor to give up to $2,500 a year to a candidate, up from the current ”hard money” limit of $1,000 set in 1974. His proposal would also double the total a person could contribute for political activities in a year to $50,000.
”This is moderate and reasonable in light of what’s going on out there,” he said.
Thompson noted it now takes about $7 million to run a campaign for the Senate, up from about $600,000 when the current restrictions were put into place.
Critics said his limits were too high, particularly Democrats who argued they would fail to lead to fundamental reform in the campaign system. Some party leaders also said Republicans would reap a political windfall if the amendment were agreed to, since the GOP raises more money than Democrats in the hard money chase.
”It would be a great tragedy in our view to finally close the door on soft money and then open up the barn door on the other side to a flood of hard money,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
The debate over the limits underscored the complexity of holding together a fragile coalition behind the overall bill.
Thompson has long supported McCain and Feingold in their effort to pass legislation – one of a few Republican senators to do so.
But his decision to seek larger direct contributions than most supporters want has complicated efforts to steer the legislation to passage.
In two test votes early in the day, opponents of Thompson failed to kill his proposal, 54-46. A short while later, Feinstein’s amendment survived on an identical test vote.
That set the stage for more than an hour of backroom negotiations.
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