- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

ATLANTA President Bush yesterday quietly signed a bill overhauling campaign finance regulations, prompting immediate lawsuits by conservatives claiming the new law is unconstitutional.
On a day that included intraparty sniping among Republicans, and Democratic claims of presidential snubbing and misuse of Air Force One, Mr. Bush signed the bill into law in the Oval Office just before 8 a.m. In an unusual move, no House or Senate bill sponsors attended.
"I believe that this legislation, although far from perfect, will improve the current finacing system for federal campaigns," Mr. Bush said in a statement. "Taken as a whole, this bill improves the current system of financing federal campaigns and therefore I have signed it into law."
As Mr. Bush flew south yesterday morning to raise millions of dollars for 2002 Republican candidates, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, filed legal papers claiming the new law infringes upon free speech.
"Today, I filed suit to defend the First Amendment right of all Americans to be able to fully participate in the political process," Mr. McConnell said. "I look forward to being joined by a strong group of co-plaintiffs in the very near future."
He has already put together a legal "dream team" to argue the case, including former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, and prominent Washington election lawyer Jan Baran.
The National Rifle Association which had workers standing by at the courthouse at 6:30 a.m. filed its own lawsuit yesterday, saying the new law "eviscerates the core protections of the First Amendment by prohibiting, on pain of criminal punishment, political speech."
"We are proud to be one of the first plaintiffs to formally ask the federal court to invalidate these new limits on the political speech of ordinary citizens because we believe that this law cannot be allowed to stand, not even for a moment," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said in a statement.
Other organizations like the Atlanta-based Southeastern Legal Foundation, the D.C.-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Virginia Beach, are planning suits challenging the advertising restrictions as well. All of the organizations said they expect the courts to consolidate them into one case.
For his part, Mr. Bush made clear he knew the new law faced legal challenges.
He said he had "reservations about the constitutionality of the broad ban on issue advertising," and that he expects "the courts will resolve these legitimate legal questions as appropriate under the law."
Despite his reservations, the president made clear he mostly approves of the law.
"I wouldn't have signed it if I was really unhappy with it," Mr. Bush told reporters as he met with emergency and rescue workers at a Greenville, S.C., fire station.
He also brushed off a reporter's question about whether he was being hypocritical by signing campaign-finance reform in the morning and raising millions of dollars in hard and soft money the same evening.
"I'm not going to lay down my arms. I'm going to participate in the rules of the system," Mr. Bush said. The new law takes effect Nov. 6, the day after this year's congressional elections.
Response from the bill's backers to Mr. Bush's unceremonial signing ranged from cool brevity to outright outrage.
Sen. John McCain, who spearheaded the 6-year effort, got the news of the signing in a phone call from Matt Kirk, deputy to White House congressional liaison Nick Calio.
"I'm pleased that President Bush has signed campaign-finance reform legislation into law" was all the Arizona Republican said in a terse statement that noted that the words came "upon learning" of the signing.
Ranit Schmelzer, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, called it a "stealth signing." House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt complained about the absence of sponsors at the signing.
"It is unfortunate that the Bush administration decided not to invite these reformers to the White House this morning," the Missouri Democrat said in a statement. "The White House missed an opportunity to pay proper tribute to these members whose vision and persistence made this day possible."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the low-key signing shows the president's mixed thoughts about the bill.
"To hold a giant South Lawn ceremony would not have the air of consistency, so the president conducted the signing in a ceremony that was befitting for his beliefs on the bill in its totality," he said.
While bill-signing ceremonies are often lavish Rose Garden events in which the president uses numerous pens and gives them to sponsors, the White House yesterday refused even to release an official photo of Mr. Bush signing the bill.
A few Democrats, however, were satisfied.
"By ending the corrupt soft-money system, this bill will begin to return the legislative process to all citizens and help restore the public's confidence in their elected leaders," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, a co-sponsor of the legislation.
When asked if he was disappointed not to have been invited to the signing, bill sponsor Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat, said: "I'm just glad he signed the bill. I give the president credit for standing up to his own party in Congress and doing what was right."
At least one Democrat was outraged but for a different reason.
Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, boycotted yesterday's visit by Mr. Bush and charged the president only visited the state to raise money for Republican candidates. He said the White House is spending $35,000 an hour for Air Force One and another $16,000 for hotels, food, advance personnel and escort vehicles.
The president stopped yesterday morning in South Carolina to discuss first responders law enforcement and rescue workers who respond first to disasters and to headline a fund-raiser for Republican Rep. Lindsey Graham, who is running for the U.S. Senate.
The event raised $1.1 million for Mr. Graham, a House prosecutor in President Clinton's impeachment trial who supported Mr. McCain's presidential run against Mr. Bush two years ago.
The president then went to Atlanta, where he again talked to a group of first responders and hit another fund-raiser, this time for Rep. Saxby Chambliss.
The event raised $1.5 million for the congressman, who seeks to unseat Sen. Max Cleland, a Democrat who garnered 49 percent of the vote in his 1996 election.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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