- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Twenty-three Senate Democrats defied party leaders yesterday by voting to boost campaign fund-raising limits in races with millionaire candidates, amid signs that momentum is building for a rival plan to the McCain-Feingold bill.

"I'm not saying we're not going to lose," Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said of his bill to ban unrestricted "soft money" contributions to political parties and restrict advertising on political issues by independent advocacy groups during federal election campaigns.

Mr. McCain told reporters after passage of the so-called "millionaire's amendment" that he is resigned to an increase in 26-year-old federal limits for so-called "hard money" donations to candidates.

That's what is proposed in a rival plan, the Hagel-Landrieu bill, originated by Sens. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, and Mary L. Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat.

The amendment offered by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, New Mexico Republican, permits a threefold increase in fund-raising limits for federal candidates facing millionaire opponents who pour their own wealth into congressional or presidential campaigns. It was adopted 70-30, with 27 Democrats and three Republicans opposing.

Federal campaign donations to candidates currently are limited to $2,000 for individual donors and $10,000 for political action committees (PACs) in each election cycle.

"Everyone knows there'll be an increase in hard money," Mr. McCain told reporters in the Senate Press Gallery. "The question is how much… . We're working on [other] amendments to raise hard-money limits," he said, but declined to be specific.

Earlier on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, pleaded in vain for lawmakers to reject Mr. Domenici's amendment.

"We're going in exactly the opposite direction of what the McCain-Feingold bill was designed to do," Mr. Dodd said. "You say there's too little money in politics, I say there's too much."

Mr. Daschle agreed. "This moves us away from limiting expenditures… . It will create different standards in different states," he said. "It will give more power to wealthy givers. Why would you want to do that in the name of campaign finance reform? This isn't reform. It makes a mockery of reform."

The move to increase fund-raising limits for individual candidates "is part of the dynamic of the debate," Mr. Hagel told reporters. "That's most of the answer in my opinion."

The Nebraska Republican said he has 15 co-sponsors for his rival bill to allow "hard money" donations three times greater than the present limit and restrict individual "soft money" contributions to political parties to $60,000, instead of banning it altogether as McCain-Feingold would.

"Soft money" unrestricted money given to political parties for voter registration, party-building activities, get-out-the-vote drives and issue advertising that does not explicitly call for the election of particular candidates totaled nearly $500 million in the 2000 election cycle. The Republican Party last year received $244 million in soft-money campaign contributions; the Democrats raised $243 million.

More than 140 donors gave more than $1 million each in soft money to Democratic and Republican political committees in 1999 and 2000.

Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana, a Democrat who supports the Hagel-Landrieu bill, said it was "one of the greatest misconceptions" that McCain-Feingold eliminates soft money from the political process.

"It eliminates soft money to the two principal political parties, but it does little to nothing to affect single-issue organizations that spend millions of dollars for single-issue advocacy ads and attack ads against candidates," Mr. Breaux told reporters in a briefing with Mr. Hagel.

Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, said he backs the Hagel-Landrieu measure because soft money would flow in greater amounts to independent advocacy groups if the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban affecting parties was implemented.

"Rather than shift soft money from one group to another, get disclosure," Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. McCain said "there is not a majority of votes" for either bill. However, he added, "I'm not worried about Hagel. Legalization of soft money will not pass the United States Senate."

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and leading opponent of McCain-Feingold, said soft money "is already legal." And the Senate, in a separate 63-37 vote yesterday against a proposed amendment to bar the use of soft money by political action committees, had "carved out an exception for corporations and unions to use soft money through their PACs," he said.

"This whole exercise is to bash political parties," said the amendment's sponsor, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican.

"I'm seeking to expose some of the inconsistencies and even hypocrisies in the McCain-Feingold bill," Mr. Bennett said. "Why do you say it's illegal for political parties to use soft money? Ban it for the unions and the corporations as well."

In a letter yesterday to Republican senators, Republican National Chairman James S. Gilmore III urged rejection of any campaign finance overhaul that would prohibit political parties from accepting unregulated soft money.

"We should be cautious about superficial reform that throws the electoral system into the hands of the wealthy," Mr. Gilmore, Virginia's governor, wrote. He said the Republican National Committee would have lost $100 million in revenue in 2000 without soft money.

Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe has said he favors passage of McCain-Feingold and the soft-money ban. But Mr. Gilmore said "the grass-roots leadership of the Republican Party has resoundingly said 'no' to banning party soft money."

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