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Senate rejects 'non-severability' amendment on campaign finance

John McCain
Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate has rejected an amendment that could have been a stumbling block in the path to a final vote on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance overhaul bill.

By a 57-43 vote, the Senate rejected the "non-severability" amendment, sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee. "Non-severability" meant that if a specific portion of the campaign finance bill were to be declared unconstitutional, the entire bill would be invalid.

The campaign finance bill is sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin.

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 violate the First Amendment's free speech provisions.

The concern is that some parts of the McCain-Feingold bill could face the same fate. By making the bill non-severable, supporters claim 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 is "narrowly focused" on a portion of the bill concerning the airing of campaign ads.

Feingold said the purpose of the amendment is 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.

As the Senate moved toward a vote on the bill, red flags arose about the measure's fate coming from 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 passes the Senate.

"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-Fiengold 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."

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
Hagel's 'soft money' limits fall in Senate
Senate OKs 'real setback' to McCain-Feingold bill
Senate OKs first change in campaign finance bill

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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