Campaign-finance reform clears first hurdle

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP)—Opponents of campaign-finance legislation are digging in their heels in the Senate, determined to kill a measure that finally has the support of a narrow majority of lawmakers.

“This bill is not going to pass. Not today, not tomorrow,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Tuesday, shortly after the legislation had cleared its first hurdle. The measure survived on a test vote of 51-48, a narrow majority but well short of the 60 votes that will be needed to overcome a filibuster led by its Republican foes.

The next test is likely to come late today or perhaps Thursday, on a proposal crafted by Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe designed to curtail union spending and attack ads in political campaigns.

“We should be putting our heads together, not building walls between us with intractable rhetoric and all-or-nothing provisions,” Snowe said Tuesday evening as she appealed for support from GOP critics of her proposal.

The campaign finance legislation, developed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., would ban unregulated “soft money” that flows to national political parties from corporations, labor unions and individuals. It also would impose fresh curbs on advertisements that attack candidates but escape regulation because they are presented as “issue ads” not covered by existing election law.

Within moments of the roll call on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott exercised his prerogative to slow the bill’s passage—much as he did last fall when the measure was last on the floor.

“Here we go again,” lamented Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. “What is it about the majority filibustering something a majority of the Senate favors?”

While the maneuvering unfolded on the Senate floor, Democrats labored for political advantage.

President Clinton—whose 1996 campaign fund raising has spawned congressional investigations and criminal indictments—issued a statement saying that “only the obstruction of a minority stands in the way of a law that would strengthen our democracy.”

McConnell and other Republican opponents charge the measure, which would impose limits on certain types of campaign spending, is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

The Kentucky Republican argued that money has played a role in politics since before the birth of the nation. “When anonymous pamphlets were passed out supporting the Revolution, somebody paid for those,” he said.

The issue, he added, is: “Do we think we have too much political discourse in this country? I would argue that we don’t have any problems relating to too much political discourse.”

Beyond their stated constitutional objections, according to several Republican aides who spoke on condition of anonymity, GOP leaders have concluded there is little public support for the measure. As a result, these aides added, Republicans see little political risk in blocking a measure that many of them believe would disadvantage GOP candidates in future elections.

Republicans have countered with a proposal would allow union members to stop the use of their dues money for political activity. GOP supporters call this proposal “paycheck protection,” but Democrats counter it is a “poison pill” designed to kill chances for campaign-finance overhaul.

Snowe’s proposal is designed in part as an alternative, and Democrats embraced it on Tuesday.

Under her proposal, unions would be barred from using dues money and corporations would be barred from using their own funds to pay for loosely regulated “issue advertisements” that are used to attack candidates within 60 days of an election. Other organizations would be permitted to air such ads, subject to speedy disclosure.

While that would impose tougher restrictions on unions than the McCain-Feingold legislation, it would be far less onerous than the measure advanced by most Republicans.

Clinton announced his support for Snowe’s proposal, and Democratic senators gave it their support after organized labor signaled its acquiescence, according to one lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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