Senate votes to move to passage of campaign finance bill

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Passage of far-reaching campaign finance legislation was assured Wednesday as opponents exhausted their last legislative means to stop it.

The Senate voted 68-32 to end debate on the measure that has been a decade in the making and would bring about fundamental changes in the way political campaigns are financed. Supporters needed 60 votes to move the bill to a final vote and beat back what would have been a crippling setback.

Passage later Wednesday would send the measure to President Bush, who is expected to sign it.

"This will be a landmark piece of legislation that will be written about in history books for years to come," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

Opponents, acknowledging that their options had run out, were already looking ahead to a court battle over the constitutionality of the legislation.

There are "obvious flaws," in the bill, said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for years a staunch opponent of campaign finance legislation, "all of which will now unfortunately have to go to the courts to be sorted out."

The legislation would turn off the flow of unregulated "soft money" from corporations, unions and individuals to the national parties, a source of funds that amounted to $500 million for the 2000 elections. Parties and candidates would have to rely more heavily on limited and regulated "hard money" donations to run their campaigns and get their message across.

"This is a very fine moment," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who seven years ago first joined Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in what has been a long and uphill fight to win congressional approval of the most significant change in campaign finance law since spending limits were imposed in the post-Watergate year of 1974.

McCain said recent political scandals, including the collapse of Enron Corp., a major contributor to hundreds of lawmakers, helped build momentum this time. He added that campaign finance had become a credible issue during the 2000 presidential campaign, when he had made it a theme in his unsuccessful race against George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination.

Bush was expected to sign the legislation, which passed the House last month. The president has opposed aspects of the bill, including the soft money ban, but has generally stayed on the sidelines and told opponents that they should not count on his veto.

McConnell on Tuesday said Bush's decision not to get involved "changed the dynamics" of the debate. "If the president had indicated an antipathy it certainly would have made it easier to defeat it," he said.

McConnell, who says the spending restrictions in the bill violate First Amendment free speech rights, said he would be a main plaintiff in a federal court case over the constitutionality of the bill. A legal decision could come before Nov. 6, when the new law would go into effect.

"I think we'll be fine in court. I am not overly concerned," McCain said.

The main legal battle is over a provision that bars corporations, unions and some independent groups from using soft money to broadcast certain "issue ads" in the final 30 days of a primary or 60 days before a general election. These ads often refer directly to candidates, attacking or supporting them.

Groups or individuals still would be able to run ads if they were paid for with hard money donations and the sources of the ads were disclosed. State and local parties would be allowed to accept up to $10,000 a year in soft money from a donor for uses such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The bill also doubles to $2,000 the limit on what an individual can give to a candidate per year in hard money. The $1,000 limit has been in effect since 1974. The bill would allow individuals to contribute up to $95,000 total during a two-year election cycle to candidates and parties, up from the current $50,000 limit.

The inadequacy of the 1974 limits became evident in the early 1990s, when corporations and unions discovered they could use soft money to skirt laws prohibiting them from financial participation in elections. Their donations to parties were deemed legal as long as the money was not used to directly seek the defeat or election of a candidate.

Such donations climbed from $100,000 in the 1988 presidential election to $86 million in 1992 and nearly $500 million in 2000.

In 1992 the former President Bush vetoed a more extensive bill that would have offered partial public financing to congressional candidates. The House and Senate passed separate campaign finance bills in 1994 but failed to find common ground.

McCain and Feingold joined hands in 1995 but were unable to prevail in the then Republican-controlled Senate. Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., championed the measure in the House, winning passage twice in the late 1990s and again last month.

------The bill is H.R. 3256.

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