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Senate OKs 'real setback' to McCain-Feingold bill

Sen. John McCain  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Supporters of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill face another challenge today after suffering what they called "a real setback" when the Senate narrowly passed an amendment Monday to restrict nonprofit organizations from running political ads 60 days before an election.

The Senate is set to vote today on an alternative reform bill offered by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, which would restrict unregulated "soft money" to political parties to $60,000 instead of completely banning it, like the McCain-Feingold bill is seeking.

"I think it'll be defeated, primarily because there's a fundamental problem with it," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, predicted on CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports."

Campaign finance reform
Status and summary of the McCain-Feingold reforms
Hagel's bill status and summary (from Thomas)

"It legalizes soft money, even though it has a cap on it. And that's been illegal since 1907, as far as corporate contributions are concerned, and since 1947, as far as unions have been concerned," he said.

But McCain also said the measure has "good disclosure provisions" in it and he believes they will find "more areas of agreement than disagreement."

Hagel's proposal also raises regulated "hard money" contributions from $1,000 to $3,000.

Even if the Hagel amendment fails, which many think will happen, other senators will offer measures to raise the hard money limits, which could force some Democrats to ultimately vote against the bill.

McCain also countered a New York Times story that said the tension between himself and the president is the question of whether McCain might challenge Bush in 2004.

Asked if he would run for president, he replied, "I will not, and I want to work with the president."

Amendment passes targeting non-profit groups

By a 51-46 vote, the Senate approved Monday an amendment offered by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota, to expand McCain-Feingold's restrictions on union and corporate advertising to also include non-profit groups like the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association -- groups with "501c4" status.

Supporters of campaign finance reform say the amendment is unconstitutional and fear the amendment could result in President Bush vetoing the legislation.

But Wellstone said the amendment was needed to prevent a proliferation of non-profit organizations from "carpet-bomb(ing) our states with all of these sham issue ads."

"This is a loophole that must be plugged," said Wellstone.

The amendment was approved by just one vote after a flurry of last-minute efforts on behalf of Republicans to pass the measure.

Supporters of campaign-finance reform called the push by Republicans to pass the measure "the ultimate in mischief-making," because even McCain-Feingold proponents believe the Wellstone amendment could be unconstitutional.

Fritz Hollings
Declaring, "The system has become corrupt," Hollings wants a Constitutional amendment to allow limits on campaign spending  

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue admit the more weighed down the bill gets with controversial provisions, the less likely it is to be agreed to by the House or signed by President Bush.

"These 501c-4s have a limited constitutional right to engage in electioneering, to do campaign ads," said Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, a supporter of McCain-Feingold. "There are some limits on them, but unfortunately if you lump them in with unions and for profit corporations, you create a very serious constitutional problem."

Twenty-four Republicans -- including McCain-Feingold foes such as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Phil Gramm of Texas -- joined 27 Democrats in voting for the measure.

Perhaps the biggest fear this measure poses to McCain-Feingold supporters is a GOP plan to offer an amendment making the final bill "nonseverable," meaning if the courts strike down one provision of the legislation, the whole thing would die.

"This amendment raises the very distinct prospect, which I believe all of us fear, that the entire effort will fall if the U.S. Supreme Court finds one defect, this is a critical amendment in that regard," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who along with McCain has pushed for campaign finance reform for years.

One McCain aide suggested the approval of the Wellstone amendment was part of the Democrats effort to tack on amendments that could ultimately kill the legislation because they privately believe the reform would put them at a fund-raising disadvantage.

The aide even suggested the Democrats are working with McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and chief McCain-Feingold foe, to torpedo the legislation.

"If Democrats ultimately vote against final passage, it will be clear that this is part of the Democrats' effort to kill the bill," the aide 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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