Senate Debates Campaign Finance Reform Again
Vote on McCain-Feingold set, prospects for passage look dim
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Feb. 23) -- The Senate resumed debate Monday on a campaign finance bill, but odds are still long against passage despite a new attempt at compromise. The first direct vote on the reform bill has been tentatively set for 4 p.m. ET Tuesday.
The McCain-Feingold legislation would curb unlimited campaign contributions to political parties and restrain spending by parties and outside groups on so-called "issue ads" that attack candidates by name but escape legal limits by stopping just short of advocating a vote against the candidate.
Tuesday's vote will be on a motion to table the bill, that is, to kill it. Supporters now believe they can muster 52 votes to defeat that motion and keep the bill alive.
However, supporters concede they are still short of the 60 votes they need to cut off debate and move on to final passage of the measure. "As far as I can tell that's just not there yet.... Right now we don't have the 60 votes," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Forty-nine senators have co-sponsored the bill, including all 45 Democrats and Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Fred Thompson (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).
In addition, Republicans Olympia Snowe (Maine), James Jeffords (Vt.) and John Chafee (R.I.) have voted with supporters on procedural votes, bucking their own GOP leadership. They are also working with supporters of the bill on compromise language to regulate issue ads, a compromise supported by Democratic Sen. Carl Levin (Mich.), the chief proponent of closing the issue-ad loophole.
Opponents of McCain-Feingold, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), oppose the legislation, saying it violates free speech. They favor instead a curb on labor unions.
Under a unanimous-consent agreement reached last October, Lott first offered his "paycheck protection" legislation Monday. It would require unions to get advance permission from members before spending any dues money on politics.
"Support for paycheck protection is the litmus test of whether we are serious and whether we are credible" about reform, Lott said on the Senate floor. "Workers of America are mugged every time they are forced to contribute to candidates and to causes they do not support."
It is supported by many Republicans, but McCain-Feingold supporters have dubbed it a "poison pill."
The McCain-Feingold bill next will be offered as a substitute amendment and under the deal reached last fall "no further amendments would be in order ... prior to a motion to table."
The amendment being crafted by Snowe, Jeffords and Chafee could be offered only after the first tabling vote on McCain-Feingold. Their proposal would require quicker disclosure of contributors to any broadcast commercials targeting specific candidates within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. It would also prohibit the use of union or corporate funds for such ads.
But not all Democrats have signed off on this alternative amendment. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) is among those who still favor Levin's stronger language on issue ads. But McCain-Feingold supporters believe all Democrats will have to come around, since Levin is saying the alternative is to have no legislation at all.
It is also not clear that Lott will allow the amendment to be offered.
In any event, Lott said he would not allow a prolonged campaign finance debate. "We have a lot of things to do and we don't have a lot of time," Lott told reporters shortly before debate began. "I don't see it going beyond the end of the week."
CNN's Brooks Jackson contributed to this report.