February 25, 1998

Senate Votes to Keep Campaign-Fund Bill Alive

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    WASHINGTON -- Defying the Republican leadership, a majority of the Senate on Tuesday voted to keep alive legislation that would overhaul the way the United States' political campaigns are financed.

    The Senate's 51-48 vote against Sen. Trent Lott's attempt to table -- or kill off -- bipartisan campaign-finance legislation marked a symbolic victory for the bill's sponsors, Sens. John McCain and Russell Feingold, who had long sought a direct vote on their proposal.

    But their support fell well short of the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster. A successful filibuster would ensure that the campaign-finance debate would end once again in a partisan stalemate this year. Forty-four Democrats and seven Republicans voted to sustain the campaign-finance measure and 48 Republicans voted to kill it.

    Minutes after allowing the overhaul forces their one symbolic victory, Lott, the majority leader, went on the offensive.

    The Mississippi Republican used a parliamentary tactic that would allow him to choke off any more amendments that might build more Republican support for the McCain-Feingold bill. And in a dart aimed at President Clinton, who has advocated free television time for candidates, the Mississippi Republican also offered an amendment of his own that would block the Federal Communications Commission from moving to require free or discounted television time.

    Democrats responded by threatening to do what they did last year and to start tying the Senate in procedural knots throughout the year to keep campaign-finance overhaul alive.

    "I'm disappointed and frustrated," said Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader, "and I must say I'm prepared to take this to whatever length required to bring this to a successful resolution this week, next week, at some point in the future."

    The confrontation came in the aftermath of a 1996 presidential election that saw the virtual collapse of the post-Watergate public campaign-finance system, as the two parties found ways to use soft money to find ways around the campaign spending limits in the public-finance law.

    But while the Republican leadership was intent on examining the president's campaign-finance practices, it has fiercely resisted legislation that would eat into the GOP fund-raising advantage. Lott worked hard last year to prevent the campaign-finance bill from coming to the floor, and only grudgingly allowed Tuesday's vote after overhaul supporters created a three week logjam in the Senate last autumn.

    The McCain-Feingold bill would ban the unlimited, unregulated large donations to political parties known as soft money, which was at the heart of many of the 1996 abuses.

    The bill would also curb issue-advocacy commercials by outside groups, by saying an issue advertisement could not use a candidate's name or likeness within 60 days of an election.

    The provision is designed to reign in a practice that has become widespread in recent elections, in which issue-advocacy groups skirt federal regulation of campaign commercials by broadcasting advertisements against candidates that never specifically urge votes against them.

    And the legislation requires greater disclosure of campaign donations, and greater penalties for violations.

    Supporters of the overhaul measure argued that the size of campaign donations has become corrupting and that the 1996 campaign abuses made change essential.

    "I am encouraged in a perverse sort of way that we've now got indictments," said McCain, R-Ariz., at a news conference Tuesday. "There will be other indictments, I have no doubt, and where they will stop I'm not sure. I am convinced that there will be a groundswell in American public opinion, that there is a mandate to change this system."

    Other Republicans countered that the bill represented an unconstitutional infringement on free-speech rights. Some also said it would prevent them from raising the money necessary for getting their political message out to the public through commercials and circumventing news media that they called biased against them.

    "The Supreme Court has appropriately recognized that in order to have effective speech you have to amplify your voice," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "The fundamental issue is this: Do we have too much political discourse in this country? I would argue we do not."

    Lott introduced his own alternative to the McCain-Feingold legislation which would simply bar unions from using members' dues for political purposes without first obtaining their written authorization. Organized labor mounted a campaign in 1996 -- which included about $35 million in television advertising -- to unseat the Republican congressional majority.

    The vote against tabling the McCain-Feingold measure Tuesday afternoon marked a symbolic victory for its sponsors. But it showed that they had the same level of support they did last year when the Senate stalemated on the issue, and that they had not picked up more votes despite their hopes that a few more Republicans would join their cause.

    In an attempt to win over more Republicans, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., are now seeking to amend the McCain-Feingold bill in a way that answers Republican objections to unions' ads.

    Their proposal would prohibit labor-union and corporate-treasury funds from being used to broadcast campaign commercials 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. It would also require disclosure of major financing sources for any radio or television commercials targeting specific candidates during those periods.

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