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McCain: 'Soft money' ruling 'a victory for the people'

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona

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John McCain
Soledad O'Brien
Campaign Finance

(CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld key portions of a campaign finance law, in effect banning unlimited "soft money" political donations.

Soft money is the widely used term for unlimited and unregulated contributions to national political parties that were legal in the United States before passage of the law.

One of the law's key sponsors, Sen. John McCain spoke Thursday with CNN Anchor Soledad O'Brien about the ramifications of the high court's decision.

The Arizona Republican, who just returned from a visit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the United States is holding suspected terrorists, also discussed his concerns about the process for handling the detainees.

O'BRIEN: The campaign finance reform was really the centerpiece of your 2000 presidential run, and you've also been working on this for a decade easily. All along people, I think it's fair to say, sometimes laughed at your enthusiasm for this bill, scoffed at your belief that it would eventually succeed and be upheld by the Supreme Court.

How do you feel now? Do you feel completely vindicated?

MCCAIN: Certainly I feel good, but I think it's a victory for the people of America and democracy to dramatically reduce the influence of special interests, and I'm grateful for Russ Feingold, Chris Shays and Marty Meehan, who were my partners in this effort.

O'BRIEN: How do you think this ruling is going to affect the presidential election in 2004?

MCCAIN: I don't think it'll have a lot of effect on the presidential election because that's a little bit different financing system, while that needs to be changed itself. But what it's going to change is that no longer can a member of Congress or the House or Senate pick up the phone, call up a union leader or a trial lawyer or the head of a corporation and say write me a check for $1 million. And, by the way, legislation affecting you is pending before the Congress.

The United States Supreme Court said that this system creates the appearance of or actual corruption and the reason why they were able to say that so definitely is because former senators submitted depositions that told how big money influences the legislative agenda and votes around here.

O'BRIEN: But, senator, at the same time, clearly there are already groups that are mobilizing to work around these rules. And I want to read you a little bit of what Sen. [Mitch] McConnell said. He said, "This law will not remove one dime from politics" that "soft money is not gone, it's just changed its address."

And essentially as long as you have groups that are not really working in concert with the lawmakers, you're fine. You can get around the law.

MCCAIN: Yes, well, actually, Soledad, coming from the prime opponent of the legislation, I think you should consider that. Look, what this will do is 30 days before a primary, 60 days before a general election, none of these groups can run a broadcast ad that says -- that supports or opposes any candidate. That is huge. Look, I can't keep people from investing their money in the political process, nor do I want to. That's what free speech is all about.

But what the Supreme Court said [is that] money is not free speech. Money is property. So therefore it can be limited in its use in a political campaign.

So, 60 days before the election, you will not see these ads that are attacking and savaging candidates or supporting them unless they raise their money the same way that everybody else does, so-called hard money in limited donations.

O'BRIEN: ... I want to turn now and talk a little bit about your visit to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba briefly. You said going in that you had concerns about what the U.S. military was doing in Guantanamo Bay. Now that you're back, what's your take on what's there?

MCCAIN: My concern was and remains the process. We've had people there who have been there for as long as two years. We have not disposed of their cases over that period of time. I think the process of deciding whether they'd be put on trial or whether they be sent back to the countries they were found is what needs to be taken care of.

It's so cumbersome and so bureaucratic that it's unclear when these individuals will be either brought to trial and charged in a tribunal or commission, depending on what you call it, and also their status needs to be clarified as to exactly what they are.

O'BRIEN: Obviously, as many people know, you have an interesting perspective on this issue, of course, serving nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. How do you think that perspective affects your take on what you've seen down in Guantanamo?

MCCAIN: Look, I hold no brief for many of these people. I am convinced that they are terrorists who are bent on the destruction of the United States of America. They were not fighting for any government or any declared war or anything like that.

But I do believe that every human being deserves a right to have their case decided, either to put them on trial for their crimes or to release them. And this process has become so cumbersome and so bogged down with bureaucracy -- everybody being afraid up to and including the deputy secretary of defense, Mr. [Paul] Wolfowitz -- that everything is in limbo.

We need to move forward with this process. There are many of them that need to be put on trial -- in my opinion, from what I've seen -- and there are many of them that need to be released.

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