Campaign Finance Overhaul


Friday, March 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) -Two weeks of Senate debate has produced the most sweeping overhaul of campaign finance law in a quarter-century, a bill, nearing passage, that could reduce donations to political parties by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

A Senate vote on final passage was scheduled Monday. Even its harshest critics agreed that the legislation offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is likely to clear a generally receptive House, despite some high-level opposition, and be signed into law by President Bush.

On Friday, McCain and others worked to amend a provision on ``coordination'' between candidates and groups on election activities that unions and other interest groups complained was written so broadly that it could outlaw a wide range of legislative and other types of advocacy.

The Senate also approved by voice an amendment by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., making violations of campaign finance laws a felony and increasing financial penalties for election lawbreakers.

The McCain bill crossed its last big hurdle Thursday with a bipartisan 57-43 vote against an amendment that would have made the main sections of the bill, including its ban on ``soft money,'' unconstitutional if the Supreme Court strikes down any part of it.

The bill would bring the most significant change to campaign finance law since 1974, when, in the wake of Watergate, Congress created contribution limits and party spending limits. It would end the practice of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals funneling through the political parties unlimited amounts of almost unregulated soft money, close to $500 million in the last election.

It also would bar unions, corporations and some interest groups from paying for broadcast ads in the final 60 days that, under the guise of discussing issues, attack or defend candidates.

Over the past two weeks it underwent several changes, most important an agreement to offset some of the soft money losses by doubling from $1,000 to $2,000 what an individual can contribute to a candidate in an election. The total ``hard money,'' or direct, regulated donations an individual can make to candidates and parties in a year, was increased from $25,000 to $37,500.

Hard money limits also were raised for candidates facing rich, self-financed opponents, and candidates were assured of getting discount rates for television ads.

McCain and Feingold were generally successful in beating back amendments they considered hostile. Those included measures seen as handicapping the political activities of unions, a proposal to cap rather than ban soft money donations and the amendment that would have made the overall bill vulnerable to constitutional challenge. Several amendments encouraging public financing of elections, unpopular with conservatives, also were defeated.

``This is not the utopian comprehensive solution to campaign finance,'' said Scott Harshbarger of the advocacy group Common Cause, a strong backer of the legislation. ``But this is a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.''

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the leading opponent, said the bill would seriously weaken political parties by taking away their soft money revenue without making a dent in money politics. ``We have cleansed the parties into almost being irrelevant,'' McConnell said.

He said he would meet next week with groups preparing legal challenges should the bill become law. ``I knew at the beginning of the debate that we were not going to win, so I was practicing as a lawyer,'' he said.

President Bush, who has opposed the soft money ban, said again Thursday that he was ready to sign a bill ``if it improves the system.''

The House has passed versions of the campaign finance bill twice, in 1998 and 1999, but McCain and Feingold, partners since the early 1990s, have never been able to gain the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome opposition filibusters. That changed this year as Democrats, the main backers, moved into a 50-50 tie with Republicans in the Senate.

Still, many Democrats have been uncomfortable with the increase in hard money limits, which they say will just infuse more money into the system and help Republicans. The soft money ban also could hurt Democrats since they compete well with Republicans in bringing it in.

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said one bad case scenario would be if the courts should strike down everything but the hard money increase. ``Now that will kill us,'' Daschle said. ``But I'm prepared to accept the roll of the dice when it comes to that, because I truly believe in campaign reform.''

Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., chief sponsor of campaign finance legislation in the House with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said that even with the hard money increase the Senate bill ``meets the test of the true reformers.''

He said his hope was that they could advance the Senate bill as a whole so it won't get thrown back into a House-Senate conference. Conference committees, he said, ``historically have been the graveyard for not only campaign finance reform but any type of public interest legislation.''