TOPICS > Politics

Background: Setting Limits

March 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Democrats ordered in folding beds last week. It was a half-joking precaution in case all-night sessions would be needed to stage the final act in the seven-year congressional drama of completing campaign finance overhaul legislation. But by yesterday, it was clear the beds wouldn’t be needed. And it was the Republican opponents of the bill who had folded.

SEN. MITCH McCONNELL: There is certainly no necessity to have any all night sessions or any of these other things that we hear have been suggested to the press, since the opponents of this bill are ready to move on with it. It’s time to pass this bill. We understand the debate is largely over, and we’d like to wrap it up.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bill co-author Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, knew he was closer than ever before to passing the most sweeping change in campaign finance laws since the 1970s.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: And the moment for reform has arrived. After six and a half years of work on this bill, and more than a decade of scandals that have threatened the integrity of our legislative process, I do believe that this body is ready to get the job done for the American people. Mr. President, I believe the American people have waited long enough.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the run-up to today’s final vote, Senators on both sides of the issue took turns praising the campaign finance legislation or its soon- to-be-victorious authors Feingold and Republican John McCain of Arizona.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: I know that for Senator Feingold and Senator McCain, the accomplishment of campaign finance reform will culminate one of their finest hours in public service.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: You never gave up. You focused and you fought. Every time there was backsliding you just refused to give up.

SEN. PHIL GRAMM: I want to congratulate Senator Feingold and Senator McCain. I believe that they’re both wrong, but they’re not wrong- hearted. In my opinion, they’re wrong- headed on this issue. They both believe that what they’re doing is in the interests of Americans.

SPOKESPERSON: Today you are the American people’s valentine.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was just last Valentine’s Day that the authors of the House version of the campaign finance overhaul bill– Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays and Massachusetts Democrat Martin Meehan– savored sweet victory after seeing the bill pass there by a healthy margin. The House effort had gotten a boost on January 24. Supporters of the measure got the last of 218 signatures, a majority of the 435 members, on a discharge petition, which forced House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an opponent, to bring the bill to the floor.

But passing so-called campaign finance reform in the House traditionally has not been the problem for the bill’s proponents. Over the years, the House has approved the bill twice, by respectable margins. The legislation always stalled in the Senate. But that calculus changed radically last spring.

In a remarkable departure from normal practice, Senators bypassed committees and spent days on the floor personally writing amendments to the main campaign finance bill. In the end, the Senate passed a modified version, with a dozen Republicans joining nearly all Democrats in voting yes.

The campaign finance bill would ban soft money — unregulated, unlimited contributions given to national political parties by corporations, unions, and individuals. But limited soft money contributions still could go to state or local parties for voter registration and get-out-the- vote efforts. The bill also would prohibit advocacy groups from using soft money to broadcast ads that refer to a federal candidate within 60 days of an election. And it would double the current $1,000 so-called “hard money” limit on campaign contributions individuals may give to candidates.

The bill would take effect November 6, the day after this year’s federal elections. Late this afternoon, came the moment some campaign overhaul supporters have admitted they thought they’d never see.

SPOKESMAN: On this vote the ayes are 60, the nays are 40 and the bill is passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: 11 Republicans joined 49 Democrats and one independent to pass the campaign finance bill.