10/09/97 - 02:50 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Reform bill stalls again in Senate

WASHINGTON - The Senate failed again Thursday to advance legislation to overhaul the nation's campaign finance system after an effort by moderate Republicans to forge a compromise collapsed.

The Senate fell short of ending a GOP-led filibuster against a bipartisan campaign finance bill backed by President Clinton. In a second vote, the Senate failed to end a Democratic-led filibuster against a GOP amendment that would make it tougher for unions to spend members' dues on political campaigns.

"The Senate has missed an opportunity today to coalesce around a middle ground that would allow campaign finance reform to advance," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who led the effort to engineer a compromise.

Her proposal addressed the "chief stumbling blocks" to passing the campaign legislation, Snowe said.

Republicans oppose a package that doesn't protect union members from having their dues used without their permission for political purposes, and Democrats don't want unions singled out without similar protection for members of other organizations and to shareholders in corporations.

Snowe urged Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to appoint a bipartisan working group to devise a compromise.

The vote to end debate on the campaign bill cosponsored by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin was 52-47, eight short of the 60 votes needed. It was the third defeat this week.

On Lott's amendment to require unions to get each member's permission before using dues for political purposes, the vote was 51-48, nine short of the 60 needed. It was the second defeat this week.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban unlimited, unregulated "soft-money" contributions to political parties and regulate independent advertising campaigns by outside groups that promote a specific candidate. It also would provide incentives for politicians not to spend too much of their own money, impose new disclosure requirements on campaign donations, and put into law a Supreme Court decision letting nonunion workers get reimbursed for fees the union spends on political purposes.

Critics say regulating independent advertising would unconstitutionally limit free speech. Banning "soft-money" would eliminate "the only money spent today on campaigns by the American people that is not under the control of the federal government," in the words of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

"The basic premise of the bill is flawed," Roberts said. "That premise is that too much money is corrupting politics. No, it is not."

Feingold called that argument "the biggest loser of all" and said Republicans criticizing the bill on a free-speech basis readily supported a bill to prevent smut on the Internet, which the Supreme Court overturned 9-0.

The Supreme Court can similarly resolve any First Amendment problem with the campaign finance bill, he said.

Democrats contend Lott's union amendment is a "poison pill" intended to undercut Democratic support for McCain-Feingold.

By The Associated Press