- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

The Senate yesterday began two weeks of debate on bills to overhaul campaign fund-raising laws even as a strategy emerged that could kill the legislation in two ways.
Opponents led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, have organized a blitz of amendments to peel away support for final passage of legislation. Meanwhile, Republican leaders revealed a move to leave any bill that is passed vulnerable to being overturned as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, started the day with a media walk to headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees two blocks from the Capitol. They predicted that their bill to eliminate unrestricted campaign "soft money" had a 60 percent chance of passage.
Mr. Feingold said it would not be easy to hold supporters in line mostly Democrats during a two-week amending process, which they said would be a "free-for-all" on the Senate floor.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who strongly opposes the McCain-Feingold bill, said he would vote for the competing Hagel-Landrieu bill, which would raise current legal contribution limits threefold and permit individuals to give up to $60,000 in total soft-money donations. But the Mississippi Republican said neither bill has the votes to pass unchanged.
"I don't think the chances of McCain-Feingold passing 'as is' are really that good," Mr. Lott said. "I think it'll be an amalgam of those two bills and other ideas that are pending out there."
Soft money is unlimited money given by individuals and groups to parties. The "hard" use of such money to elect specific candidates is illegal.
As the Senate started amending McCain-Feingold with a measure to "level the playing field" for opponents of millionaire candidates who finance their own campaigns, Mr. Lott revealed a strategy to leave a final bill vulnerable to being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Senate leader said Republicans would insist on a clause that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down only a portion of any measure that becomes law, leaving the rest of any campaign finance legislation intact. He called such a "non-severability" clause a deal-breaker.
"I think that's a critical, critical element," Mr. Lott said. "It has to have a non-severability clause. And I think the president would not be inclined to sign it without that language in there… . We need to make sure that the final product is going to be one that keeps the playing field as even as possible."
One proposal that he said could be rejected by the high court a measure Mr. Lott said he found attractive is a provision in the McCain-Feingold bill authored by centrist Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and James M. Jeffords of Vermont that would require independent advocacy groups to disclose large contributors who finance political issue advertisements and would prohibit such ads within 60 days of federal elections.
"A lot of people would argue very aggressively that it's unconstitutional and the courts will strike it down," Mr. Lott said. "But … candidates have lost control of a lot of what swirls around them in their campaigns."
Mr. McCain opened the debate with a plea for lawmakers to help "change the public's widespread belief that politicians have no greater purpose than our own re-election… ."
"And who can blame them?" he asked. "As long as the wealthiest Americans and richest organized interests can make the six- and seven-figure donations to political parties and gain the special access to power that such generosity confers on the donor, most Americans will dismiss the most virtuous politician's claim of patriotism."
Mr. Feingold said infusions of $500 million in unrestricted "soft money" in the 2000 election cycle made "a mockery of campaign finance law… . Can we finally close the door on the soft-money system that gives the appearance of corruption?"
Mr. Feingold's sentiments were echoed by some Republicans. Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi said "soft money" demeans the political process. "Some of the raising and spending of money look more like a money-laundering system than an aboveboard political campaign," he said.
However, Mr. McConnell said McCain-Feingold is an unconstitutional restriction of free-speech rights that courts would strike down if passed. Besides, the public has no interest in campaign finance reform, which Mr. McCain made the focal point of his losing presidential campaign last year, he said.
"It ranks right up there with static cling."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, co-sponsor of the Hagel-Landrieu bill, said McCain-Feingold's total ban of "soft-money" donations to national parties by corporations, labor unions and individuals would reduce the role of parties in the political process, undermining the political system.
"Any reform that weakens the parties will weaken the system," the Nebraska Republican said. "We must look to expand, not restrict, opportunities for people to participate in the political system."
Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, ridiculed the first amendment to the bill, offered by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, to raise the $1,000 individual contribution limit fivefold for candidates with millionaire opponents who self-finance their campaigns.
Mr. Wellstone said it is "a giant step forward for reform by putting more money in politics. I don't think that's what people want to hear."
The amendment was tabled on a 51-48 vote after Mr. Domenici was refused the right to alter it to accommodate objections of other senators who said it did not provide equal treatment for wealthy candidates. The New Mexico Republican said he would offer a revised amendment to aid opponents of millionaire candidates, which Mr. Lott said he hoped the Senate would adopt.


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