The final vote, 60-40, marked a major victory for reformers who have worked more that six years for its passage.
Although President Bush has not said whether he would approve or veto the proposal, reports indicate that he will likely sign the bill that includes a ban of so-called “soft money” as well as limitations on other types of spending.
The key provision touted by supporters and derided by critics involves the elimination of almost all unregulated donations to political parties for advertising, or soft money. Key sponsors Senators Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued the soft money ban ends one abuse of the political process.
“While eliminating soft money will not cure the campaign finance system of every ill, it will end a system of unlimited donations that has blatantly put political access and influence up for sale,” Sen. Feingold said as the debate opened. “Enron is just one in a long line of corporations, unions and wealthy individuals that has exploited the soft money loophole to buy influence with Congress and the Executive Branch at the very highest levels.”
Opponents countered that the provision will only cripple political parties while empowering groups with specific agendas.
“This [bill] represents a shifting power from these broad mainstream parties,” Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) warned. “We are now going to replace that with very specialized interests.”
Such soft money donations climbed from $100,000 in the 1988 presidential election to $86 million in 1992 and nearly $500 million in 2000.
Although the major aspect of the bill focused on banning soft money, the bill also includes sections that will likely face constitutional challenges in court. The legal battle focuses on a provision that bars corporations, unions and some independent groups from using soft money to broadcast certain “issue ads” that refer directly to candidates, attacking or supporting them in the final 30 days of a primary or 60 days before a general election.
“The vote today is not the end. There is litigation ahead,” said the bill’s primary foe, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Supporters of the proposal said they were ready for a legal fight. They point to the fact that these groups would still be able to run ads if they were paid for with hard money donations and the sources of the ads were disclosed.
“I think we’ll be fine in court. I am not overly concerned, but we have to be prepared,” McCain said.
Others, while acknowledging the upcoming court fight, said the bill was constructed in such a way that if the court struck down a provision of the law, the remainder would stay in effect.
“I think the major portions of the bill are constitutional,” Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) said. “But I think it has an awful lot of good in it. It will do a lot of good.”
Some supporters, such as Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), did warn that if the court strikes down provisions regarding the limitation of independent groups, it would destroy “the delicate balance of the law.” He added he would reconsider the ban on soft money if the court did strike down that provision.
In addition to the soft money ban and ad limits, the bill doubles the limit on what an individual can give to a candidate per year in hard money to $2,000. It also allows individuals to contribute up to $95,000 total during a two-year election cycle to candidates and parties, up from the current $50,000 limit.