WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans thwarted a planned test vote on banning unregulated "soft-money" donations Monday as intense parliamentary maneuvering strangled prospects for an overhaul of U.S. campaign fund-raising laws.
The Senate endorsed the soft-money ban on a 92-1 procedural vote that was rendered meaningless when Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has led the fight against the ban, told his Republican colleagues to vote with its supporters.
The ban's proponents had forced the vote to prove once again that a Senate majority favors banning the soft-money donations that corporations, labor unions and individuals give to political parties, which can then use them to support individual candidates.
But McConnell's move robbed the vote of significance, handing opponents another small victory in a three-day debate marked by heavy procedural maneuvering that has choked off expected amendments and seems almost certain to doom the soft-money ban.
"This process is nothing but a way to avoid the issue of banning soft money," said a frustrated Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), co-sponsor of the proposal with Republican presidential contender John McCain of Arizona.
Soft-money donations were at the heart of the 1996 White House fund-raising scandals, and supporters say the ban is crucial to restoring public confidence in the electoral process.
Supporters gained 52 votes in favor of a ban twice last year, only to see the bill die because they could not muster the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster led by McConnell.
McCain, who has made campaign finance reform a foundation of his White House bid, and Feingold tried to lure new support this year by dropping proposed restrictions on issue ads, which avoid regulation by discussing candidates and their records without directly urging a vote for or against them.
Opponents argued that those restrictions, included in a House-approved version of the bill, would be an unconstitutional hindrance of free speech rights.
After three days of procedural wrangling, the only votes scheduled on the issue are two today to try to force consideration of the new McCain-Feingold bill and the broader House-passed version.
Neither is expected to get the 60 votes needed to pass, Republican leaders indicated.