Campaign finance reform clears significant hurdle
WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved, 59-41, a sweeping campaign finance overhaul bill Monday, ending a multi-year effort to push the largest such proposal since the Watergate era through the chamber.
Among other provisions, the bill bans unlimited contributions to political parties, a practice known as "soft money."
The measure's two chief sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, still face a long road before the bill become law. It still must clear the House -- where opponents of the bill in its current form include Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois -- and then likely will go to a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions.
And even if a measure clears Congress, it must be signed by President Bush before it could become law. The president has been noncommittal about whether he would sign the bill, saying he wanted to see the legislation in its final form before making a decision.
Still, the Senate vote is a significant milestone in the history of the measure: The House approved similar campaign finance measures in each of the last two years, but the bill has died numerous deaths in the Senate, where the sponsors were, until this year, unable to muster the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster preventing a final vote.
Numerous attempts to amend the bill to make it unpalatable to the sponsors or, more likely, to be struck down by the federal courts failed last week, and as those amendments went down, the likely outcome of the bill became clear. However, opponents are far from finished with the measure.
"It's not over yet," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, vowed Sunday. "It's over in the Senate. But this is a bill that's fraught with all kinds of constitutional problems, and if it becomes law, I'm taking it to court."
Supporters say the bill will break large donors' power over lawmakers. McConnell and other opponents argue the bill violates the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
In addition to banning soft money, it would raise the amount of direct contributions for candidates from $1,000 to $2,000, beef up disclosure requirements and restrict advertising by independent groups.
McCain, who made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his 2000 presidential bid, said Sunday he would worry about a court challenge when it comes. First, he said, he will focus on getting the bill through the House of Representatives.
"It's been through the House twice by overwhelming majority, so I think we can do it," McCain said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"I do not underestimate that the closer we get to passage the greater the opposition will be," McCain said. "But it's still a long way from us having a bill on the president's desk."
Though McCain said he is "guardedly optimistic" that the legislation will clear the House, others seem less certain.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, predicted the measure would pass the House by a slim margin but said Republicans would "put a poison pill" in the legislation when it goes to a conference committee. "And it will never reach the president's desk," Rangel told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
Republicans in the House say they could put off a vote on the bill until the fall, citing other priorities -- President Bush's budget and tax proposals, for example.
"We'll have an interesting debate on the House side," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Virginia. "And I think you'll see a somewhat similar, but a different bill will come out of the House."
Any changes the House makes must be reconciled with the Senate through a conference committee -- and Republicans left open the possibility that McCain would not even be named to that committee.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, said McCain didn't sit on the Rules Committee, which had jurisdiction over the bill, so he didn't have a legitimate claim to sit on a conference committee. He said Sunday that McCain's views on campaign finance reform did not square with those of most of his GOP colleagues.
"Sen. McCain is not representative of the Republican conference on this bill," said Hagel, who had unsuccessfully pushed a rival measure in the Senate.
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