Senate approves campaign finance bill
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Senate approved the most significant changes to campaign finance laws in a generation Wednesday, sending a bill intended to curb the influence of money in politics to President Bush -- who said he will sign it.
Supporters in Congress had fought for bill for seven years, but the measure finally gained momentum this year because of the Enron scandal. It passed the Senate on a 60-40 vote Wednesday afternoon.
In a statement released by the White House, Bush said he will sign the bill despite some misgivings about it.
"The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall," he said. "The legislation makes some important progress on the timeliness of disclosure, individual contribution limits and banning soft money from corporations and labor unions."
However, the president said the bill, which most of his fellow Republicans in Congress opposed, raises "some legitimate constitutional questions." He also said he continues to believe "the best reform is full and timely disclosure of campaign contributions."
The bill, known as McCain-Feingold in the Senate and Shays-Meehan in the House, is scheduled to go into effect on November 6, the day after this year's elections -- unless a promised court challenge by critics succeeds.
Changing how political campaigns are financed will "help to restore the public's faith in government," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who made the issue a centerpiece of his 2000 presidential bid.
Supporters of the bill cleared their final hurdle earlier Wednesday, when they mustered 68 votes to end debate on the issue -- eight more than needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster that has killed the measure in the Senate in previous years.
"The American people know that our current campaign finance system is broken," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, at a rally with supporters of the measure. "Our government is a government by the people, of the people and for the people. It is not a government of, by and for some of the people."
Opponents of the bill, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, argue that banning soft money contributions is tantamount to violating the First Amendment 's right to free speech.
McConnell said the bill unconstitutionally regulates political speech and shifts the flow of campaign cash from political parties to outside groups that operate under even less scrutiny.
"This is an attempt to regulate the political speech of some in order to enhance the political speech of others," he said. "There won't be a penny less spent on issues and campaigns in America after this bill becomes law."
The measure bans the unregulated donations to national political parties by individuals, corporations and unions known as "soft money" -- funds that are supposed to be used for party-building activities, but often help an individual candidate. State and local parties will still be able to accept "soft money," but the size of such donations and how they are used will be regulated.
The bill also doubles the limits on so-called "hard money," or direct contributions to individual candidates.
The bill also would ban unions and corporations from using "soft money" to broadcast what are known as "issues ads" within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary. Issue ads are often little more than veiled pitches for or against a particular candidate. While these organizations can finance some ads through political action committees, they must disclose the names of their donors.
If as expected the bill is signed into law, it will bring the most significant changes to how political campaigns are financed since Watergate, the scandal that drove Richard Nixon from the White House in 1974.
Supporters of the bill, which passed the House last month, said their cause gained momentum because of the Enron Corp. scandal, the bankruptcy of the energy giant that was a big contributor to many political campaign committees and candidates.
In the end, 48 of the Senate's 50 Democrats favored the bill, along with 11 Republicans and Sen. James Jeffords, an independent from Vermont. Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska joined 38 Republicans in opposing the measure.
A campaign finance bill passed the Senate in April 2001, but stalled in the House in July after Democrats accused Republicans of political maneuvering to guarantee its failure.
McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, have fought to pass campaign reform legislation since 1995. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, have led the campaign reform movement in the House.
Under provisions in the bill, a court challenge would first be heard by a panel of three federal district court judges. Any appeal of their decision would go directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, bypassing the circuit court of appeals.
McConnell said opponents would probably proceed with their challenge immediately, rather than waiting until the law goes into effect in November. A high-powered legal team that will lead the fight could be unveiled as soon as Thursday.
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