- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

The Senate yesterday approved a bill on campaign finance regulations that restricts fund raising by political parties and election advertising, sending the measure to President Bush after years of deadlock on Capitol Hill.
The vote was 60-40. There were 48 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one independent in favor of the bill. Opposed were 38 Republicans and two Democrats, Sens. John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Mr. Bush turned down calls from conservatives to veto the measure, announcing yesterday that he will sign the bill.
"The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall, and I will sign them into law," he said in a statement after the passage of the bill.
"With a stroke of the president's pen, we will eliminate hundreds of millions of dollars of unregulated soft money that has caused the American people to question the integrity of their elected representatives," said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the chief proponent of the new regulations.
But the measure still faces a round of court challenges long before it takes effect following this year's November elections. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and the most ardent opponent of the bill, said he will file suit and expects the law to be overturned.
The bill would impose the most sweeping new campaign finance regulations since Watergate. It would prohibit national political parties from collecting soft money uncapped contributions that are spent on issue ads and organization activities and it would restrict interest groups from running ads using soft money in the weeks before a primary or general election.
In exchange, the bill doubles the "hard money" contributions, which are closely regulated by law, that candidates are allowed to receive from individuals and increases the total amounts individuals are allowed to give in an election cycle.
Together, Democratic and Republican political committees received $86 million in soft money in 1992, $262 million in 1996, and $495 million in 2000. In 2000, soft money accounted for about half of the national parties' fund raising.
Reform supporters said the bill, which they have been trying to pass in some form or other since 1995, will help remove the taint of corruption that large, soft-money donations bring. Democrats also sought to use the bankruptcy of Enron Corp. to bolster their case for the elimination of soft money from national parties.
"Is it good enough that half of the government has to recuse itself from an investigation of a failed company because it spread around so much money to those who were involved, to so many people in that community? Is it good enough that in every election the amount of money spent goes up and the number of people voting goes down? Is it good enough that the current system is more loophole than law?" said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. "With this vote we stand on the verge of putting the reins of government back in the hands of all people."
But opponents said the bill will not take the influence of money out of politics "there won't be a single penny less spent on issues and campaigns in America after this becomes law," Mr. McConnell said.
Instead, he said, it will eviscerate parties by shifting donations to less regulated special-interest groups.
"The real loser under this legislation is the American voter, who can no longer rely on the political party as an indicia of what that candidate stands for," he said.
Mr. McConnell said the soft-money ban would end national political conventions as they are now run, since 80 percent of the money it takes to stage them comes from soft money.
He also said the new rules prohibiting coordination between candidates and outside groups could criminalize everyday conversations.
Even Mr. Daschle acknowledged yesterday that the bill might hurt the legislative process by forcing members to spend more time on fund raising.
"It could make it worse in some respects because you have to go to more people," he said, though he also expects the cost of elections to go down.
Mr. McConnell said the real winners in the bill are the media particularly newspapers, which don't have the same restriction on running ads in the weeks before an election that broadcast stations will face. Hence, Mr. McConnell said it is not surprising the New York Times and The Washington Post have editorialized in favor of campaign finance changes an average of more than once a week over the last five years.
At times during yesterday's debate the emotion of a 6-year battle showed. At one point both Mr. McConnell and Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, were on the verge of tears as Mr. Gramm praised Mr. McConnell's courage in opposing the bill. And the bill's backers seemed to tear up as the bill finally passed, and some of the spectators in the gallery even began to applaud in violation of Senate rules.
Still, the next phase of the battle is about to begin. Mr. McConnell said he will be the lead plaintiff in the suit challenging the measure, and said he will announce his legal challenge and file the suit soon. He said he thinks both the soft-money restrictions and the regulations on how outside groups may run ads in the weeks before elections are unconstititional.
But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican and one of those who crafted the ad regulations, said the courts haven't had to grapple with the issue for a quarter of a century, and she said the relatively recent development of soft-money contributions and issue ads that sound like campaign ads could sway the courts in favor of the bill.
The bill passed the House last month, 240-189. Before yesterday's vote on final passage of the bill, Democrats arranged a test vote to prove they had enough support to prevent a filibuster.
The vote was 68-32. Senators who voted to prevent a filibuster but against passing the bill were Mr. Breaux and Mr. Nelson, and Republican Sens. Gordon H. Smith from Oregon, Bill Frist from Tennessee, Ted Stevens from Alaska, Jon Kyl from Arizona, Chuck Hagel from Nebraska and Charles E. Grassley from Iowa.


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