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Campaign finance bill passes first Senate test

McCain, left, and Feingold begin their crusade Monday morning  

McCain: Public thinks campaign funding 'corrupt'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After defeating an amendment on campaign fundraising legislation, Senate Democrats began working on a compromise today.

Reformers prevailed in the first skirmish, narrowly turning back an amendment to raise the limits on donations to candidates facing wealthy, self-funding rivals. The vote was 51-48, and came after unusually intense public lobbying in the well of the Senate that persuaded three Democrats to switch their votes.

Monday's opening battle begins two weeks of debate Monday on a bill that would ban unlimited contributions to political parties known as "soft money." Sponsors John McCain, R-Arizona, and Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, say the bill is needed to restore public faith in politics and cut into a growing public image of corruption.

Campaign finance reform will likely go in front of the Supreme Court. CNN's Charles Bierbauer explains

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Campaign finance reform may tackle donations for access to politicians, but, as CNN's Eileen O'Connor reports, it may not stop the process

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McCain spoke with CNN about the issue

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CNN's Major Garrett says the White House fears the fight over campaign finance reform will be distracting

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CNN's Jonathan Karl says the fight over soft money is making foes out of friends

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Campaign finance reform
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"Any voter with a healthy understanding of the flaws of human nature and who notices the vast amounts of money solicited and received by politicians cannot help but believe that we are unduly influenced by our benefactors' generosity," McCain said.

"Why can't we all agree to this very simple, very obvious truth: That campaign contributions from a single source that run to the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are not healthy to a democracy?" he said. "Is that not self-evident? It is to the people."

McCain said the real threat to the bill is from a procedural vote that could force the Senate to move to other business, which takes only 51 senators, or amendments that could weaken the bill's support.

The amendment, offered barely two hours into the debate by New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, would require self-financed candidates to disclose their spending and lift limits on fund-raising for candidates who aren't self-financed to keep them competitive.

"It's a fair-play amendment. It's a 'let's be considerate of a candidate who isn't rich' amendment," Domenici said.

But critics said the amendment would result in more money, not less, flowing into campaigns.

"This is one big, huge gigantic leap sideways, or backward," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota. And Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, added, "If you oppose McCain-Feingold, this is one quick way to undercut it."

The amendment drew the support of California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein said she could support McCain-Feingold as it is, but said Domenici's proposal "has a good deal to recommend it."

"It is an attempt to level the playing field," said Feinstein, who beat a 1994 challenge from a candidate who spent $30 million of his own money. "I see increasingly where only wealthy candidates are going to run in some of these big races unless we do something to even that playing field."

Feingold argued that the better way to aid a challenger in those circumstances would be to grant free or discounted television airtime to make up for the financial shortfall.

Feinstein also said she would also propose raising the limits on direct contributions to campaigns -- known as "hard money" -- because the current limit of $1,000 has been overtaken by inflation since it was set in the 1970s.

Hagel substitute awaits its turn

Campaign finance reform was the centerpiece of McCain's run for the Republican presidential nomination last year. The bill would not only ban soft money, it also would restrict political advertising by independent groups and enact greater disclosure requirements. Critics argue the bill's limits on spending violate the First Amendment's right to free expression.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the bill's most prominent Senate opponent, said it would hamstring political parties without limiting major voting blocs such as labor unions, which overwhelmingly back Democrats.

"No federal court in America is going to let us quiet the voices of all of these interests who have a perfect right to go out and engage in issue advocacy up to and including the day of the election," McConnell, R-Kentucky, said.

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. "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."

The parties are supposed to use soft money for party-building activities, but it typically is spent in a way that benefits a particular candidate. Soft money contributions have ballooned in recent years. The two major parties collected roughly $500 million in soft money contributions during the past election cycle.

Democrats have strongly supported McCain-Feingold in the past, but the bill has faced strong GOP opposition and died in the Senate. With the Senate split 50-50 this year, the legislation is widely viewed as having its best chance of passage ever, although one Democrat, John Breaux of Louisiana, has already announced his opposition.

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.

"Certainly part of what Sen. Hagel is proposing is very good, and I think that it probably will be added to McCain-Feingold and maybe some other ideas too," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said.

In addition, Bush has insisted that any reform bill 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.

Lott discounted supporters' arguments that the pressures of campaign fund-raising create an appearance of impropriety.

"The idea that a senator or senators would be inappropriately influenced by a $1000 contribution or the fact that a $100,000 contribution went to the Republican National Committee or a state party, I think it's inaccurate," he said.

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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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