AL GORE: How are you?
KWAME HOLMAN: Leading up to the last year's election, the two major political parties raised nearly half a billion dollars in unregulated, unlimited campaign contributions to spend on races for every office, from the presidency on down. They're called soft money contributions, and they enable corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to influence federal campaigns, which federal law prohibits them from contributing to directly. And almost all of that money was used to buy television time.
AD SPOKESMAN: Why does al gore say one thing when the truth is another?
KWAME HOLMAN: These soft money campaign ads, in which no candidate specifically is endorsed, have come to dominate recent Presidential campaigns in particular.
AD SPOKESMAN: What are their plans for working families?
KWAME HOLMAN: And for the past several years, Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold have led the charge in the Senate to rewrite the election laws and ban soft money outright. This afternoon, they sounded the battle cry once again.
SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD: All eyes are on the Senate. Either we rise to the occasion and meet the test before us, or we let the American people down again. Either we finally ban soft money in the next few weeks, or we let them conclude this: That we are so addicted to this system, so tainted by corruption or at least the appearance of corruption, that once again we cannot change.
KWAME HOLMAN: The McCain-Feingold bill will be at the forefront of two weeks of debate set aside by the Senate to consider campaign finance reform. The bill would ban unlimited soft money contributions to political parties by corporations, unions, and individuals; it also would bar corporations and unions from paying for their own issue ads that mention federal candidates just before an election; and it would require outside interest groups that run ads to disclose expenditures and contributors; and ban unlimited soft money contributions to political parties by corporations, unions, and individuals. Traditionally, Democrats have stood nearly unanimously in support of the McCain-Feingold bill, and in recent years, a number of Republicans have joined them. But this year, even with the Senate now split 50-50, there is no guarantee the McCain-Feingold bill will pass. A few Democrats now say they're reconsidering their support. Louisiana's John Breaux says he'll vote against it.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: I think more and more members are, quite frankly, looking at it more carefully than they have in the past, and I think what many are finding is that it has a lot of deficiencies in the bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: Breaux said the bill could put Democrats at a disadvantage. He noted that during last year's campaign, Democrats were able to match Republicans in the amount of soft money raised. But Republicans held a significant advantage in raising hard money. Those are contributions by individuals limited to $1,000 per candidate. McCain-Feingold would not change that.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: I don't think it's real reform if you give one party a huge advantage over the campaign funding over the other party. I mean, that's not fair to start with, and I don't think that's real reform.
KWAME HOLMAN: As for the Republicans, most in the Senate have opposed the ban on soft money, on the grounds it violates contributors' constitutional right to free speech. However, some Republicans now are getting behind a competing reform bill introduced by colleague Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. His main objective is to disclose the source of all campaign contributions.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I start from my fundamental promise that the problem in the system is not the political party. The problem is not the candidates' campaign. The problem is the unaccountable, unlimited outside monies and influence, that flows into the system where there is either little or no disclosure. That, madam President, is the core of the issue that we debate beginning today.
KWAME HOLMAN: New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici was the first to step forward with an amendment, proposing a change in hard money contributions. Domenici suggested raising or even eliminating the current limits on contributions for candidates whose opponents plan to spend half a million dollars or more of their own money in a campaign.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: If you're going to put in huge amounts of your own money into the campaign, it is patently -- patently unfair that your opponent would be limited to fund raising levels that are how old now? 26 years old, without a change, which is $1,000 per primary and $1,000 per general -- from your friends who want to help you. Just think for a moment if you were so fortunate to have somebody run against you that put $20 million of their own money, just think of what's ahead of you, opposition candidate, to go out and raise the money you need to run a fair campaign against $20 million -- and raise it in $1,000 at a time per election.
KWAME HOLMAN: Showing how support for these issues crosses party lines, Republicans John McCain and Fred Thompson stood up to reject Domenici's amendment, as did Democrats Feingold and Wellstone.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE: My colleague comes and says the latest way to deal with the problem of millionaires financing their own candidates is to basically take the limits off of contributions so that we now have a contest between millionaires and people who can run by getting support from millionaires, or from large financial interests, be it contributions -- individual contributions to them or contributions to the party. And this is meant to be a proposal, so the word for people in the country is the United States Senate in the first amendment that we're going to consider has taken a giant step forward for reform by putting more money into politics. I just don't think that's what people want to hear.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Bennett of Utah said he could support Domenici's amendment. So did Democrats Feinstein of California and Durbin of Illinois.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I think the candidates of America are now broken down into two categories. I call them m and m's, Senator Domenici: Mega millionaires and mere mortal, and I happen to be in the second category.
KWAME HOLMAN: And so it's unclear what campaign finance reform measures ultimately will emerge, with the two-week debate opened to unlimited amendments.
JIM LEHRER: We had hoped to interview Senators McConnell and McCain right now, but they're tied up on the floor of the Senate, but we expected them to be with us later in the program.