- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

The Senate yesterday killed an amendment that could have doomed the campaign finance reform bill, paving the way for a final vote and expected passage of the McCain-Feingold legislation Monday.
On a 57-43 vote, senators defeated a so-called "non-severability" amendment, which would have voided the whole law if courts found unconstitutional any of the three major provisions in the bill being pushed by Sens. John McCain and Russell D. Feingold.
Thirteen Republicans joined 44 Democrats to kill the amendment that would scuttle the bill's ban on unrestricted "soft money" if courts strike down its limits on independent advocacy ads before federal elections.
The Senate will debate final proposed amendments for two hours this morning, taking a vote on all remaining amendments at 11 a.m.
A vote on final passage was set for 5:30 p.m. Monday, so Senate lawyers could review the heavily amended bill over the weekend for needed technical changes.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the measure's most outspoken opponent, conceded last night.
"This bill is going to pass," the Kentucky Republican said. "And if I were a betting man I'd bet it's going to be signed into law."
But the House speaker yesterday said that McCain-Feingold faces further obstacles at the other end of the Capitol.
Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, told reporters he believed the new Senate version had "inherent flaws." Versions of McCain-Feingold have twice passed the House only to die in the Senate.
"I think there are some constitutional flaws in the Senate bill," he said. "However, I think campaign reform will come to the House, and I want to see what the bill looks like in its entirety before I make a decision how we will proceed."
Before the non-severability vote, Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, pleaded with senators to eliminate "perhaps the last major hurdle" to passage of his legislation.
"If you vote for this amendment, you are voting for soft money" donations outside federal limits that wealthy individuals, corporations, and labor unions can now give to national political parties, Mr. McCain said. "That's what this vote is all about."
Mr. Feingold agreed.
"This vote on this amendment will decide whether this very unfortunate and corrupting system will survive," the Wisconsin Democrat told the Senate.
The amendment offered by Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, would have linked three major provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill so that all would fall together if any one was declared unconstitutional by the courts.
The legal term for such linkage is "non-severability."
The three provisions are the soft money ban, restrictions on independent advocacy groups that prohibit issue ads naming specific candidates 60 days before a federal election, and higher campaign fund-raising limits for candidates and political parties.
Mr. Frist's amendment would have permitted national political parties to resume receiving "soft money" if the courts ruled that Congress could not limit advocacy issue ads financed by contributions to independent groups, which the McCain-Feingold bill would do.
He said the two provisions were "knitted together."
"The last thing we want to do is upset that balance," Mr. Frist said on behalf of the amendment.
"We have the possibility of opening up the floodgates" for unlimited independent advocacy ads financed by special interests if the courts say limitations in McCain-Feingold violate freedom of speech, he said.
"The individual candidate is losing his voice today" because of unrealistic, outdated fund-raising restrictions, he said.
Incumbent politicians and challengers are faced by "the increasing influence of special interest groups … that overwhelm the voice of the candidate… . It is about voice and freedom of speech."
President Bush yesterday said he would withhold a decision on whether he would sign campaign finance reform legislation, as it now stands, until he sees a bill sent to the White House.
"If it improves the system, I'll sign it," the president told reporters at a White House news conference.
The Senate has debated the bill for nine days and considered 28 amendments.
The amendment limiting pre-election speech was called "a bill killer" by Mr. Feingold when it passed Monday.
"It has been signed, sealed, and delivered primarily by opponents of the bill as a poison pill," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. "It's aimed straight at the soft money ban, which is the heart and soul of the bill."
Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, said he believed the limits on advocacy groups might be unconstitutional.
"We can't stop these entities from running ads," he said. "What we can stop is members of Congress raising huge amounts of money and creating a public perception that we're involved in what's wrong with the system."
Creating balance between competing political interests is not the aim of the bill, Mr. Edwards said.
"Campaign finance reform is about restoring integrity to the system and causing the American people to believe once again that the system has integrity, that it works, that this democracy belongs to them, and that it's their government," he said.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, one of only six Democrats who supported the "non-severability" amendment, said Congress caused the soft money problem. Its 1974 campaign finance reforms had parts that were struck down by the courts, thus creating the loopholes that McCain-Feingold seeks to plug.
Democratic and Republican political committees will be limited to regulated contributions only, called "hard money," and independent groups "will spend unlimited amounts of soft money with no controls at all."
Independent groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), Sierra Club and National Right to Life Committee spent $500 million on such ads in the last election cycle.
"How many times do we have to see [NRA President] Charlton Heston saying why people on my side shouldn't be elected, and using corporate money for those ads?" said Sen. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat.
Mr. McConnell said non-severability would damage the two parties, because they will lose soft money that comprised 40 percent of their campaign funds in the 2000 election cycle.
Earlier in the day, the Senate rejected on a 72-28 vote a move by Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, to strike from the bill the limits on issue ads.
Mr. DeWine said it was "blatantly and obviously unconstitutional" to bar issue ads that refer to a federal candidate by name and run within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election.
The original amendment offered by Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, expanded restrictions on issue ads funded by unions and corporations to ads funded by tax-exempt advocacy groups, which Mr. DeWine said the courts would obviously strike down as an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment.
"As long as the Wellstone amendment is in this bill, clearly it's going to be held unconstitutional," Mr. DeWine said, adding that support for his amendment to remove the issue-ad provision was "a vote for freedom of speech, for the First Amendment and for the Constitution."


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