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Senate to vote on McCain-Feingold measure Monday

Feingold, McCain
Sen. John McCain, left, and Sen. Russ Feingold at the podium, on Thursday

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Appearing well on its way to passage, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform measure is slated for a vote in the Senate on Monday.

Supporters of the bill cleared what they called their last major hurdle Thursday by defeating an amendment that would have killed the measure if a court deemed any one of its provisions unconstitutional.

By a 57-43 vote, the Senate tabled -- essentially rejecting -- a "non-severability" amendment sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee.

"Non-severability" means that if one portion of the bill were to be declared unconstitutional, the entire bill would be invalid.

The amendment would have meant death for key parts of the campaign finance reform legislation if a court deemed one part unconstitutional. It's defeat is considered a victory for McCain-Feingold supporters

The issue arose because in the past, federal courts have rejected attempts to overhaul campaign finance rules on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment's free-speech provisions.

The concern was that some parts of the McCain-Feingold bill could face the same fate. By making the bill non-severable, supporters claimed the whole measure would be put in jeopardy by a successful court challenge of one provision.

Frist said that was not the case, and the amendment was "narrowly focused" on a portion of the bill concerning the airing of campaign ads.

CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on how the vote may affect passage of the McCain-Feingold bill

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Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, a sponsor of the bill with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the purpose of Frist's amendment was obvious: "If you vote for this amendment, you will be seen to have voted for maximizing the chances of the enemies of reform to prevail against the wishes of the Senate and the will of the American people," he said.

Once the chamber turned back the amendment, the Senate's most vocal opponent of McCain and Feingold's brand of campaign overhaul, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, took to the floor to tell his colleagues he now expected the bill would pass, and they would now have to get used to an atmosphere of millions of fewer dollars available to both parties.

"This is a stunningly stupid thing to do, my colleagues, and don't think anybody out there is going to save us from this," McConnell said. "This bill is going to be passed late tonight, and if I was a betting man, I'd say it was going to be signed into law.

"I just want to welcome you to a hard-money world," McConnell said.

Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut responded, "Yes, it is a new world. And I think it is a better world."

McCain and his compatriots celebrated.

"We are gratified by the size of the vote," McCain said of the defeat of the Frist amendment. "Several senators who had not given us their vote before gave us their help today."

The next steps

As the Senate moved toward its vote, red flags arose about the measure's fate in the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said the Senate bill has "constitutional flaws" and is unlikely to be approved in the House in the same form that it passed the Senate.

Arizona Senator John McCain  

"I have a hard time seeing the balance in the Senate bill because it unilaterally disarms one side. And I think there are some inherent flaws, some constitutional flaws in the Senate bill," Hastert told reporters.

The House has twice passed legislation similar to McCain-Feingold but both bills died because the Senate refused to consider them.

If the House and Senate pass different bills, the language will need to be reconciled. That concerns proponents because it means renegotiating the hard-fought agreement and new votes in the House and Senate.

Minority Leader Dick Gephardt echoed Hastert's concerns about taking up the Senate bill -- which in its current form boosts the cap on hard-money donations to federal candidates while eliminating the unlimited soft-money donations. Gephardt opposes raising the hard money limit.

"I didn't notice the Senate wanting to put the House bill that we passed, twice, on their calendar, unchanged, and have no amendments on it," he said.

Leaving open a window for compromise, Hastert added, "However, I think campaign finance reform will come to the House and I want to see what the bill looks like in its entirety before I make a decision how we will proceed."

McCain said Thursday afternoon he was "guardedly optimistic" about the bill's chances for success in the House.

The action in the Senate came one day after the chamber voted to amend the pending campaign finance overhaul bill to raise the limits on direct contributions.

On a 84-16 vote, the chamber agreed to amend the bill to raise so-called "hard money" contributions to candidates from the current limit of $1,000 per year to a new limit of $2,000. In addition, the chamber raised the annual individual contribution limits from $25,000 to $37,500 overall for candidates and political parties for use in direct campaign expenses. It is the first increase of the limits since they were enacted in the post-Watergate era 27 years ago.

The vote cleared yet another major concern holding up potential passage of the measure.

President Bush supports banning soft money contributions by corporations and unions, but has been opposed to placing a ban on contributions by individuals. However, he is leaving himself room to sign a campaign finance overhaul if it reaches his desk.

"This is a bill in progress. It is a bill that continues to change and I'll take a look at it when it makes my desk," the president said at a White House news conference Thursday.

CNN's Kelly Wallace, Bob Franken, Ted Barrett and Randy Lilleston contributed to this article.

Senate agrees to higher 'hard money' contribution limits
March 28, 2001
Hagel's 'soft money' limits fall in Senate
March 27, 2001
Senate OKs 'real setback' to McCain-Feingold bill
March 26, 2001
Senate OKs first change in campaign finance bill
March 20, 2001

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin
The White House

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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