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02/24/98- Updated 05:35 PM ET

Finance bill still alive in Senate

WASHINGTON - Campaign finance legislation cleared its first Senate hurdle on Tuesday, and supporters struggled to amass the support needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.

A bid by the Republican leadership to scuttle the bill outright failed, 51-48. At the same time, Democrats swung behind a compromise proposal by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, affecting the thorny subjects of union spending and attack ads in political campaigns.

"So we (Democrats) are doing our best to do our part to get campaign finance reform," said President Clinton, who also announced his own support for Snowe's proposal.

Supporters of the legislation conceded they are still shy of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, and the roll call indicated as much - with 44 Democrats and seven Republicans voting to sustain the measure and 48 Republicans trying to kill it.

But Clinton's comments were fresh evidence that Democrats hope to use the debate to position themselves as advocates of reform, and Republicans as its enemy.

The legislation, crafted by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Ariz., would ban unregulated "soft money" donations to national political parties from corporations, labor unions and individuals. It also would provide fresh curbs on advertisements that attack candidates but escape regulation because they are presented as "issue ads" not covered by existing election law.

In addition, it would provide for greater disclosure of campaign donations, and greater penalties for violations.

Supporters pointed to the excesses of the 1996 presidential campaign as evidence the system needs reform.

"One thing I can predict to you," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "There will be more indictments and more scandals and more indictments ... until we clean up this system."

"It makes good people do bad things and bad people do worse things," he said.

Most Republicans followed the lead of Lott and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who argued that the legislation, with its limitations on spending, amounts to an infringement on First Amendment rights of free speech. "We don't suffer from too little political discussion in this country," said McConnell. "We ought to be encouraging more."

Beyond that, Republicans are seeking passage of an amendment that would give union members the right to stop organized labor from using their dues money for political campaigns.

Republicans call this proposal "paycheck protection," but Democrats counter it's a "poison pill" designed to kill chances for campaign finance overhaul.

Snowe's proposal is designed in part as an alternative, and Democrats embraced it in hopes they can they can demonstrate a majority of Senate votes against Lott's proposal.

Under the McCain-Feingold legislation, loosely regulated "issue advertisements" that are used to attack candidates within 60 days of an election would be banned.

Under the alternative Snowe was backing, unions would be barred from using dues money and corporations would be barred from using corporate funds for such ads close to elections. Other organizations would be permitted to air them, subject to speedy disclosure of their donors.

"We're essentially creating a level playing field," Snowe said at a news conference.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota told reporters the party's rank and file was united.

With all 45 Democrats presumably in support of the McCain-Feingold legislation, as well as seven Republicans, that gave backers 52 votes - eight shy of the 60 that eventually would be needed to break a filibuster.

Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., a supporter of Snowe's proposal, suggested there might be opportunity to find other Republican converts.

"There are a lot of people who are up for re-election and this is kind of a free vote for them," he said.

At the same time, even supporters of the measure conceded there was no public groundswell of support for the legislation pending in the Senate. "The public interest has waned," conceded Snowe.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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