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Senate OKs Landmark Campaign Reforms

59-41 Vote Bans 'Soft-Money' Donations; Prospects Uncertain in House


WASHINGTON — The Senate on Monday approved the broadest changes to campaign finance rules in a generation, including the first ban on unlimited donations to political parties, with a dozen Republicans joining a Democratic-led coalition that claimed the mantle of reform.

The Senate voted 59 to 41 to pass the legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). The vote was a milestone in a years-long drive to respond to abuses of the system of contribution limits enacted in 1974 after the Watergate scandal.

For years the bill had languished in the Senate without a climactic vote. But now, with that formidable hurdle cleared, it heads to presumably friendly terrain on the other side of the Capitol.

In two votes in recent years, most members of the House rank and file have gone on record in support of the bill's headline goal--banning the unlimited donations known as "soft money"--but most of the chamber's Republican leaders are hostile.

The chief sponsors of the House version of the bill, Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), stood smiling in the back of the Senate chamber during Monday's vote, aware that the burden of moving the legislation was falling to them.

The measure now faces threats that include a delay in House action--no vote is scheduled yet--and the possibility that a leadership-appointed panel of House and Senate negotiators will need to reconcile the different versions. Such conference committees often weaken or kill bills behind closed doors.

Assuming a bill clears Congress, it would then need either President Bush's signature or his tacit assent to become law. While the president is reserving judgment, in recent days some opponents have speculated that his eventual approval is likely.

This much is sure: The bill is far removed from the reforms Bush has advocated as a candidate and as president.

McCain, victory in hand, thanked a Senate whose agenda he had commandeered for two weeks even though the new president has shown little appetite for his bill.

"I asked at the start of this debate for my colleagues to take a risk for America," McCain said before the vote. "In a few moments, I believe we will do just that."

Opponents warned that the bill would not pass constitutional scrutiny and would merely transfer power from political parties to special interests.

"There's nothing inherently evil about [soft] money," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "Parties are the one entity in America that will support a challenger."

Though McCain dominated the headlines, the bill's passage was a huge victory for Senate Democrats, who attained an unprecedented 50-50 split with Republicans in the chamber in last year's election.

Forty-seven Democrats voted for the bill, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California. Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina dissented.

Across the aisle, the vote stung Republican leaders who had blocked the bill for years before relenting and allowing an open debate. Eleven Republicans joined McCain in bolting from the GOP leadership. Among them were five who in 1999 had voted to uphold a Republican filibuster against a soft-money ban: Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Ted Stevens of Alaska.

McConnell noted, though, that the bill's proponents fell well short of the 67 votes they would need to override Bush should he veto the bill. Also, McConnell plans a legal challenge.

The party breakdown on the vote belied the fears of many Democrats that a ban on soft money could hurt them more than Republicans. In 1999 and 2000, the two political parties raised more than $487 million in soft money--a sum about evenly split between them.

But Republicans had a substantial edge in contributions raised under the system of federal limits, known as "hard money," which may be spent on direct efforts to elect or defeat candidates. Soft money, by contrast, is supposed to be spent on general party activities such as promoting voter registration or turnout.

Critics of soft money, however, argue that it is all too often spent on advertising to attack or promote a candidate, and that it is a window of influence for donors able to write checks of $100,000 or more.

The bill would ban national parties and federal candidates from raising or spending soft money and would prohibit state parties from spending it on federal elections. It also would severely restrict "issue advertising" by independent groups in the weeks before an election.

A third key provision would raise hard-money contributions that directly benefit federal candidates, including a doubling of the current $1,000 individual contribution limit per election.

During an unusually free-flowing debate, the Senate probed campaign finance for two weeks. The breadth of the discussion was striking.

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