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Update: Campaign Finance Reform

March 30, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: For two weeks the Senate has done little but debate campaign finance reform, and this morning frustration began to show.

SPOKESMAN: Reserve the right to object.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s chief opponent to the McCain/Feingold reform bill, reminded colleagues they were supposed to be through proposing amendments by 11:00 this morning. Yet the Senate still had several amendments to go.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: Mr. President, we’ve been on this bill for two weeks. This amendment was adopted on the first day of the two-week debate, and here we are at two minutes to 11:00 still trying to fix it.

KWAME HOLMAN: The backlog of unresolved issues mostly was the work of democrats. However, none was expected to alter significantly the Senate’s work after two weeks of drama, debate and decision. During that time, Senators debated some 50 amendments, but throughout, the heart of McCain/Feingold remained intact. In short, the bill would ban any future use of unregulated unrestricted soft money contributions by political parties, and prohibit unions and corporations from broadcasting any ads that mention a candidate 60 days before a general election.

SPOKESMAN: Mr. Campbell, Ms. Cantwell…

KWAME HOLMAN: But Senators also made substantial additions to McCain/Feingold. They voted to double the current $1,000 so-called “hard money” limit on campaign contributions individuals may give to candidates. And agreed to even higher limits for candidates competing against wealthy opponents who self- finance their campaigns. Senators also strengthened requirements that broadcasters sell candidates air time at their lowest rate. But perhaps the most critical vote during the past two weeks came yesterday. Opponents wanted to attach to McCain/Feingold a provision that would nullify the ban on soft money contributions to political parties if any other major provision of McCain/Feingold was found to be unconstitutional. Bill sponsor Russ Feingold addressed his colleagues before the vote.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD: This vote is the ultimate test for the Senate in this debate on campaign finance reform. It might be called the campaign finance reform test. The American people are standing by, waiting to see whether this body will pass or fail that test.

KWAME HOLMAN: Feingold’s argument won out. 57 Senators voted to table, in effect defeat the last major obstacle to the campaign finance reform bill.

SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD: I really want to thank all my colleagues in the Senate for doing something that makes me awfully proud. I mean, there is a lot of money that will come out of their campaigns. There is a lot of insecurity in terms of their future political careers that comes as a result of this. It’s not an easy vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: But McConnell told Senators they had made a mistake.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: But I promise you if McCain/Feingold becomes law, there won’t be a penny less spent on politics, not a penny less — in fact, a good deal more spent on politics. It just won’t be spent by the parties. And even with the increase in hard money, which I think was a good idea and I voted for, there is no way that will ever make up for the soft dollars lost.

KWAME HOLMAN: Yet, McConnell acknowledged the Senate would pass McCain/Feingold.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: And if I were a betting man, I’d bet it’s going to be signed into law.

KWAME HOLMAN: But before it reaches the President, the campaign finance reform bill must go to the House of Representatives, which has passed similar legislation by wide margins before. Nonetheless, the bill’s other author, john McCain, isn’t taking the house for granted.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, there’s certain members who will say, “we’re not going to let it pass, it’s not going to pass. We’re against it now,” et cetera. Look, we’re going to have a fight in the House. We’re going to work with our House colleagues. It’s not going to be easy. And we don’t underestimate the challenge, but we are guardedly confident that we will pass it through the House of Representatives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senators decided not to work late today or through the weekend. They’ll return to the Senate floor for a series of speeches on Monday as a prelude to the final vote.