Senate takes up last big issue on campaign finance bill

Thursday, March 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Senate supporters of legislation that would reduce big money influences in politics face their last big hurdle: how to protect the bill from constitutional challenges.

Senate leaders were hoping for a final vote Thursday on the campaign finance legislation of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., after nearly two weeks of intense floor action in which backers have acceded to some changes but warded off amendments they considered hostile to their cause.

Still intact were their main goals _ to ban the largely unregulated ``soft money'' donations that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals give to political parties and to restrict in the final 60 days of an election so-called issue ads, which often are barely disguised attacks on or defenses of candidates.

But first they must get by an expected proposal by opponents that would render the entire bill unconstitutional if the Supreme Court finds that any section of it violates First Amendment free speech rights.

With interest groups already primed to challenge restrictions on political advertising, McCain-Feingold backers said the ``severability'' aspect of the bill _ meaning the rest of the bill survives if one part is struck down by the courts _ must be maintained. ``To make it non-severable is to destroy the bill,'' Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.

Republicans who see an all-encompassing constitutional provision as a way to bring down the entire bill could be joined by several Democrats concerned that setting up legal firewalls could hurt their party.

Democrats now compete well with Republicans in raising soft money _ with both parties taking in more than $240 million in the last election _ and it could be to the advantage of Republicans if the Supreme Court upheld the soft money ban but ruled the restrictions on issue ads were unconstitutional.

The first scheduled vote on Thursday will be on an attempt to eliminate the section of the bill that deals with those ads. The Bill of Rights is clear, said the amendment's sponsor, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, that ``Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.''

But Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., author of the language with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said they were careful to follow a past Supreme Court ruling that political spending could be restricted to avoid the appearance of corruption. ``We deter the appearance of corruption by shining sunlight on the undisclosed expenditures for sham issue advertising,'' he said.

On Wednesday, the Senate resolved another divisive issue by voting 84-16 for a compromise plan to raise the limits on the direct, regulated ``hard money'' contributions that individuals make to candidates and parties.

The $1,000 per-election limit on donations to candidates, in effect since 1974, was raised to $2,000, and the aggregate per year limit for donations to candidates and parties went up to $37,500, from the current $25,000.

Many Republicans sought larger increases, saying $1,000 in 1974 was worth more than $3,000 today, while some Democrats were unwilling to offset the soft money ban with a big boost in hard money. ``I support this compromise reluctantly because it is necessary to keep us moving forward,'' said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who worked out the compromise with Feinstein, said he thought it would help secure passage of the bill by bringing more Republicans on board. He added that ``I think we're developing something that the president can sign.''

President Bush has never been in favor of a blanket soft money ban but has pointedly avoided coming out against McCain-Feingold. ``The president has made it perfectly clear that he wants to be able to sign a good campaign finance reform proposal this year,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.

The Senate also passed, 52-48, an amendment by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., aimed at limiting a new burst of spending in the event that the Supreme Court, in a ruling expected in the next few months, eliminates hard money spending caps by political parties on behalf of candidates.

Under his measure, national and state parties that voluntarily adhere to current spending limits would get access to low television advertising rates.