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Senate OKs first change in campaign finance bill

Sen. John McCain  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Campaign finance reform advocates, after shooting down an earlier plan, went along Tuesday with a compromise to lift fund-raising limits for candidates facing deep-pocketed rivals.

The compromise, which would allow contributors to donate more money than currently allowed to candidates facing wealthy, self-financed opponents, passed the Senate 70-30 after campaign finance co-sponsors John McCain and Russ Feingold went along.

Supporters held together to shoot down an earlier version Monday evening, but the amendment to the McCain-Feingold bill passed after revisions overnight.

"The principles of McCain-Feingold have been preserved here," McCain, R-Arizona, said as debate on the bill continued Tuesday.

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Feingold, D-Wisconsin, warned that alternatives and "poison-pill" amendments jeopardize the bill's final passage. He said he was not completely happy with the amendment, "but in the spirit of compromise, I intend to support it."

Today the Senate will consider an amendment by Sen. Robert Torriceli, D-New Jersey, to counter what he said is the practice of price gouging by television stations on political ads bought in the final days of a campaign

The Senate has set aside two weeks to debate the McCain-Feingold bill, which would bar the unlimited donations to political parties known as "soft money."

It also would restrict political advertising by independent groups and enact greater disclosure requirements.

Critics say the bill's limits on spending and issue advertising violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of expression.

McCain said the amendment passed Tuesday deals only with "hard money," or direct contributions to political candidates.

It would require self-financed candidates to disclose their spending and lift fund-raising limits for candidates who are not self-financed to keep them competitive.

Sponsors Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, and Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, argued that the measure would level the playing field when one candidate is spending large amounts of his or her own money to run for office.

It would increase allowable contributions to a candidate on a sliding scale based on a state's population. The current cap on contributions, $1,000, would triple when opponents spend a certain amount of their own money. The cap would go up to $6,000 at a second level, and would be eliminated at the third level.

"We now have what, for the general public, would appear at least to be a rather ludicrous situation," DeWine said. "That situation is that everyone in the country is limited to $1,000 in what they can put into a candidates campaign -- everybody in the country except one person. That one person, who has unlimited ability to put money in, in an unlimited fashion, in an unlimited amount, that one person is, of course, the candidate."

Though proposed by Republicans, many Democrats supported the amendment.

"It is an element of fairness, an element of opportunity. It basically says in America, we won't let you buy an election," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois. "If you're going to come in and try to do that, then you're at least going to give the other candidate a chance to compete."

But others worried even the revised amendment would undercut the McCain-Feingold bill.

"This isn't reform," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle said. "This makes a mockery of McCain-Feingold."

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, called the amendment an "incumbency protection" measure. Dodd said the advantages of current officeholders make up for much of the financial disadvantages some candidates may face against a wealthy opponent.

But Durbin said the measure would even the odds between the "M&M categories -- the multimillionaires and the mere mortals."

Still in the wings is a rival bill to be introduced by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. Hagel, a staunch supporter of McCain's presidential bid, warned that McCain-Feingold would limit the ability of people to get involved in politics.

"Democracy is messy," Hagel said Monday. "We're going to hear a number of examples of how messy and unfair democracy is over the next two weeks. The answer to reforming our system is not to shut people out or diminish the ability of our people or institutions to participate in the process."

Hagel's bill is more in line with principles President Bush outlined last week. It would cap soft-money contributions at $60,000 and raise the limit on individual contributions to candidates.

Bush also wants any reform bill to mandate a choice for union members on whether their dues can be diverted to political candidates. That proposal, dubbed "paycheck protection," is opposed by Democrats and labor leaders.

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Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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