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Update: Debating Campaign Finance Reform

Congress continued debate today on campaign finance reform. Kwame Holman reports from Capitol Hill.

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  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Within the last 24 hours emerged the first serious challenges to the McCain- Feingold campaign finance reform bill. The bill in short would prohibit political parties from raising or spending any more unregulated, unrestricted soft money contributions that have come to dominate political campaigns. And it would keep in place the current $1,000 limit on what individuals are allowed to contribute to any one candidate.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    Mr. President, Senator from Nebraska.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But today, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel stepped forward with an alternative for those who find elements of the McCain-Feingold bill too restrictive.

  • SEN. CHUCK HAGEL:

    It is real reform. It will change our campaign finance system. It will make it better, more accountable, more responsible.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The Hagel bill would raise the amount individuals may contribute to a candidate from $1,000 to $3,000, and it would not prohibit soft money contributions to political parties, but cap them at $60,000. Louisiana's John Breaux was one of the few Democrats to endorse the Hagel alternative.

  • SEN. JOHN BREAUX:

    Let me give you just an example of what is occurring now without the Hagel amendment. On my side of the aisle, just through the Senate Campaign Committee in the last cycle, American federation of state county, municipal employees gave our side $1,350,000. Republican side, soft money, going to their campaign committee, Freddy Mack gave him $670,250.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But Michigan Democrat Carl Levin argued soft money simply is being used to skirt federal spending limits and should be banned altogether. Simply argued.

  • SEN. CARL LEVIN:

    It seems to me unless we close this soft money loophole, we are going to destroy public confidence in the election process in this country, and the cynicism which exists in the impact and effect of large money on our politics is just going to simply grow.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    However, the Hagel bill did prove an attractive alternative to many McCain- Feingold opponents, who nonetheless believe some reform is inevitable.

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    We have the prohibitionists on one side who want to completely gut the parties, those like myself who would like to see the parties continue to have an unfettered opportunity to compete with outside groups. What Senator Hagel and Senator Breaux have done is try to strike a middle ground.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    At Senator Hagel's request, the elements of his plan were separated into individual bills and voted on in rapid succession. By a narrow margin, the Senate tabled– in essence, defeated– the provision to raise the $1,000 limit on hard money contributions. It also tabled the $60,000 cap on soft money contributions, leaving intact McCain-Feingold's outright ban.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    Well, I think what we did was we spoke affirmatively that soft money would be banned, by a 60- 40 vote; that we would not allow soft money. And I think that was an important vote and important message.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But the McCain-Feingold bill still is in jeopardy as a result of an amendment adopted last night. Proposed by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, it would ban special interest groups from using soft money for issue ads that identify a candidate within 60 days of an election; and require special interest groups to disclose expenditures on all such electioneering issue ads; Wellstone, a supporter of the McCain-Feingold bill, said his amendment would strengthen it.

  • SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE:

    If you don't have that prohibition of soft money, you're going to take the soft money from parties, and it's all going to shift to a proliferation of these groups and organizations that are going to carpet-bomb our states with all of these sham issue ads. This is a loophole that must be plugged.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But other supporters of McCain-Feingold argued Wellstone's amendment might violate free speech rights.

  • SEN. JON EWARDS:

    What Senator Feingold, Senator McCain, the reason they are opposing this amendment is the same reason that I oppose this amendment, is that it raises very serious constitutional problems. The United States Supreme Court, in fact, in 1984 has specifically ruled on this question. And so what we urge the members of the Senate to do is not support this amendment.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    What worried McCain-Feingold supporters was a provision opponents are hoping to attach. It would nullify all elements of the bill if any one of them is found to be unconstitutional by the courts. It's called a non-severability clause, and reform supporters said the Wellstone amendment could trigger it.

  • SEN. RUSSELL FEINGOLD:

    There's going to be an effort on this floor to make this entire bill non-severable. That raises the stakes on this to the point of threatening the entire piece of legislation, because if any one piece of this bill, if we lose on non-severability, is determined to be unconstitutional the whole bill falls.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Reporter: And for that reason, the Wellstone amendment attracted friends and foes of McCain-Feingold, once the voting began.

  • CLERK:

    > Mr. Allard, Mr. Allen, Mr. Baucus…

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Some McCain- Feingold supporters genuinely believed the Wellstone amendment was an improvement, and voted for it.

  • CLERK:

    Mr. Biden, aye.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But many opponents of McCain-Feingold voted for Wellstone as well.

  • CLERK:

    Mr. Lott, aye.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Included among those yes votes was Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, the Senate's chief opponent to McCain- Feingold.

  • CLERK:

    Mr. McConnell, aye.

  • SEN. MITCH McCONNELL:

    My intention in voting for the Wellstone amendment was to make a bill that was already unconstitutional more unconstitutional, and that was the argument I made to my colleagues, and I'm glad it succeeded.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    In fact, McConnell convinced the Senate's elder statesman, 98-year-old Strom Thurmond, to change his vote.

  • CLERK:

    Mr. Thurmond, aye.

  • SEN. TOM DASCHLE:

    I do think our Republican friends were having fun last night, but I think seriously it's an issue we can address, and I don't think it's that crippling.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    After the 25-minute vote, a slim majority of 27 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted to pass the Wellstone amendment. However, Wellstone refused to view his amendment as a deal- breaker.

  • SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE:

    What deal breaker? I mean, listen, I'm not part of some deal, I'm trying to improve the policy, I'm trying to have a campaign finance reform bill that works for people in Minnesota and works for people in the country. I think anything you can do to get as much of the big money out and bring as many people back in you ought to do, and I think that we'll pass McCain-Feingold bill and it's going to be a better bill because of this amendment.

  • SEN. JOHN McCAIN:

    It now all rests on the issue of severability. If the bill is kept severable and that amendment is deemed unconstitutional and the rest of the bill stays in tact, then we don't have a problem. If it is non-severable, then obviously we do have a great problem.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    D But the severability issue is the most prominent among perhaps 20 campaign amendments the Senate still plans to consider this week.

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