10/07/97 - 11:57 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Campaign reform bill stalls in Senate

WASHINGTON - Two dramatic Senate votes Tuesday on the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill left Republican leaders asserting that reform was dead.

Although reform advocates vowed to fight on, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the votes "put an end to campaign-finance reform at this time. They end the drive for phony reform."

In Tuesday's key vote, McCain-Feingold supporters fell seven votes short of the 60 they needed to break through a Republican filibuster and vote on the bill itself. The vote to cut off debate failed, 53-47.

The supporters were also thwarted, at least temporarily, by a Lott amendment that would make McCain-Feingold unacceptable to Democrats. The amendment would require unions to get advance permission from members to use dues for political purposes.

Democrats said they were one vote short of being able to kill the provision and consequently, they opposed a Lott motion to move ahead with a vote on it. Lott's motion won 52 votes, eight short of the 60 needed.

The two sponsors, Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, had hoped for negotiations rather than showdown votes Tuesday. The maverick McCain, who endured a bruising lunch with fellow GOP senators just before the votes, maintained that reform advocates came "a lot closer than the vote looks" to winning.

And he dismissed Lott's declaration of death. "Sen. Lott has driven a stake through other issues" that have gone on to prevail, McCain said. "We will continue to fight."

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., accused Lott of creating a procedural maze designed to make it look like Democrats were killing campaign-finance reform. "I'm very disappointed with the way this whole matter has been handled," he said.

Senators are still snaking their way through that maze. More votes to cut off debate on the bill are scheduled for today and Thursday. Another vote to cut off debate on the Lott amendment also is on the agenda Thursday. Supporters say they are close to being able to kill that amendment.

They also intend to try to attach McCain-Feingold to every possible vehicle on the Senate floor. They say that's the way the Kennedy-Kassebaum bill expanding health-insurance access and the minimum-wage increase eventually passed.

The McCain-Feingold bill would require more disclosure and encourage wealthy candidates to limit their personal campaign spending. It would impose new restrictions on political ads and ban the unlimited, unregulated party contributions called soft money.

Supporters say the changes are needed to make sure wealthy people and special interests don't drown out the voices of everyday Americans and to encourage people of modest means to run for office.

Opponents coalesced around a constitutional argument. They buoyantly depicted Tuesday's outcome as a triumph for free speech.

"The First Amendment remains protected from the assault that was McCain-Feingold," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chairman of the Republican Senate campaign committee and a leading opponent. "This effort to put the government in charge of political discussion in this country is not going to pass now, it's not going to pass tomorrow, it's not going to pass ever."

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY