Tuesday, April 3, 2001

The Senate handed a major victory yesterday to Sens. John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, passing their campaign finance reform bill by a 59-41 vote.

Capping his five-year drive for the legislation, Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, praised the “faith, energy and never-say-die spirit” of those he called “the community of activists for campaign finance reform.”

Mr. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, asked the Senate to “seize the opportunity to enact real reform” by banning soft money “that makes this body so vulnerable to the appearance of corruption.”

Forty-seven Democrats and 12 Republicans voted for the measure, with 38 Republicans and three Democrats voting against it.

Despite the Senate victory, the measure still faces hurdles. It must be approved by the House and signed by President Bush to become law and even then it will face court challenges from those who say it violates the First Amendment.

“The bill is fatally unconstitutional” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, the measure’s chief Senate opponent. He scoffed at “the underlying theory … 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 president has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Mr. Bush will “look at it when it reaches his desk. It’s still going through the legislative process,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press yesterday.

The legislation marks the first overhaul in a quarter-century of Watergate-era campaign finance laws that set limits on individual, corporate, labor union, and political party contributions to congressional and presidential candidates.

The McCain-Feingold bill outlaws unrestricted “soft money” contributions to political parties, which emerged as a loophole in contribution limits in the original 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act after various federal court rulings overturned spending restrictions aimed at independent advocacy groups on grounds they violated freedom of speech.

Several hundred wealthy donors, corporations and labor unions pumped about $500 million of soft money into party committees during the 2000 election cycle. Republican and Democratic leaders said soft money accounted for about 40 percent of their total campaign budgets.

To offset the loss of funding from a soft money ban, McCain-Feingold was amended to increase limits on “hard money” donations to candidates and party committees.

Individuals would be allowed to contribute $4,000 per election cycle to candidates, rather than the $2,000 that has been the limit since 1974, and that amount would be indexed to increase in future years at the rate of inflation.

Total individual contributions to all candidates and political party committees each election cycle would be increased from $50,000 to $75,000.

During two weeks of debate on the bill, senators from both parties sharply attacked what they called “sham issue ads” and anonymous contributors who financed an estimated $500 million worth of political issue advertising and “attack ads” against candidates in the 2000 election cycle.

“I am talking about groups such as those that ran the ‘Flo’ ads on Medicare,” said Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat. “None of the people on my side liked those at all. I am talking about groups that ran the ‘Harry and Louise’ ads, which used corporate contributions to run negative ads all the way up to 60 days before the election.”

The McCain-Feingold bill prohibits corporations, labor unions, and nonprofit independent advocacy organizations from running political advertisements that support or oppose candidates in the month leading up to primary elections and the two months immediately before any general elections.

However, foes of the bill attacked the provisions as unconstitutional infringements of freedom of speech and political association.

“It is astounding to me that free speech in America has come to protect flag burning and nude dancing, but yet the greatest deliberative body in the history of the world feels perfectly comfortable in denying the ability of free men and women to put up their time and their talent and their money to support the candidates of their choice,” said Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican.

At a news conference following passage of the bill, Mr. McCain rejected opponents’ concerns that limits on the political activities of private groups are unconstitutional.

“People are deprived of the right of free speech when people have a megaphone taken away by people with money,” he said.

Mr. McConnell said after the vote that Democrats had predicted just 31 votes against passage, but ended up with 41 enough to sustain a presidential veto.

“I thought we had a good vote,” the Kentucky Republican said. “It sends a message both to the House and the president that if the bill stays in this form and the president decided to veto it, the votes would be there to sustain a veto.”

Mr. McConnell has pledged to file a federal lawsuit against the legislation. He said he would meet with lawyers and possible co-plaintiffs this week to plan the legal strategy.

As debate concluded yesterday, Mr. McConnell warned that the bill would undermine the ability of political parties to carry their message to American voters.

“You won’t take the money out of politics,” he said. “You will take the parties out of politics.”

Under current law, Republican Party committees would have had $111 million of hard money for all campaign activities in the 2000 election, Mr. McConnell said, but under McCain-Feingold rules, Republican committees would have had just $25 million.

He said Democratic Party committees would have had $47 million in “net hard money” under current law, but just $6.2 million under McCain-Feingold rules.

Republican members of the McCain-Feingold coalition were Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee; Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island; Thad Cochran of Mississippi; Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine; Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois; James M. Jeffords of Vermont; and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

They were joined on final passage by three other Republicans Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

The three Democrats who voted against the bill were Mr. Breaux and Sens. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide