WASHINGTON - Vowing an immediate court challenge, opponents of campaign finance reform glumly stepped aside yesterday for a steamroller - fueled by the Enron scandal - that will make dramatic changes in the way federal elections are bankrolled but may not reduce the billions of dollars in American politics.
After a day of impassioned and historic summations for and against the bill, the Senate voted 60-40 to pass a campaign finance reform bill years in the making, with 11 Republicans voting for it and only two Democrats voting against it.
Because the Senate's version is the same as the version the House passed last month, it goes directly to the White House.
President Bush, in a statement issued by the White House last night, said he will sign the bill, though he called it “flawed in some areas.”
“The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall, and I will sign them into law,” he said.
After the vote there was a burst of applause by supporters even though such demonstrations are banned in the Senate. But even supporters say they are not convinced all the provisions are constitutional.
One reason the bill passed is that opponents will take it directly to court through so-called “expedited review,'' where a three-judge panel will rule on its constitutionality. No matter what happens, the measure is certain to go to the Supreme Court. Another reason the bill passed is that it says that if any provision is held unconstitutional, the other provisions of the new law would still be in effect.
A major change in the bill is a ban on “soft money'' contributions to national political parties. Soft money is supposed to be for party-building efforts but has been widely exploited to promote candidates as a way to get around the “hard money'' limits on individual donations to candidates, which were raised from $1,000 to $2,000 by the bill and indexed for inflation.
Soft money was a major loophole to Congress' intent to limit spending in the post-Watergate reforms passed in 1974. That was the last time major changes were made in how federal candidates raise money.
Another major provision prohibits corporations, labor unions, and nonprofit groups from paying for so-called “issue ads” that are thinly disguised campaign ads for individual candidates 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.
Individuals also can give up to $10,000 to state and local parties for voter-registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
Opponents of the bill argue that the new individual contribution limits and the ban on soft money are a violation of free speech.
Ohio's two Republican senators, Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, voted against the bill. Mr. Voinovich said the bill “tramples on the Constitution'' and “damages the two-party system which has brought continuity and stability to our democracy and which encourages citizen participation and open debate. The bill also drives underground to unregulated special-interest groups activities and funding which currently are held up to public scrutiny.''
Michigan's two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, voted for the bill. Mr. Levin exulted that the bill would change the political landscape and promote democracy. He credited in part “inspiring citizens like Granny D who walked across the country to make her point.''
Although Mr. Bush is supposed to sign the bill, the Senate's third-ranking Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.), gave a scathing indictment of the bill, calling it “an incumbent protection plan.'' He said the media, which still will be able to charge politicians for political ads (85 percent of the spending of some national campaigns goes for TV ads), is “the big winner - ordinary Americans are shut out.''
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R, Ky.), who directed opposition in the Senate to the bill, agreed and said the bill violates free speech. He has argued that if a man wants to sell his home and his car to help support a candidate he believes will be the next Thomas Jefferson, that man should have the right to do so.
The bill's passage was a major victory for Sens. John McCain (R, Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D, Wis.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (R, Conn.) and Martin Meehan (D, Mass.). The four men had fought together for campaign finance reform for more than seven years. Some years the House passed it but not the Senate. Other years, the opposite happened.
Senator McCain, who made passage of campaign finance reform a pillar of his 2000 presidential campaign, denied the bill would make life tougher for challengers. “Incumbents already have a 98 percent re-election rate,'' he scoffed. And he said that because the bill will take $500 million out of political campaigns by banning soft money for the two major parties, “some may even panic [but] it is a sign that this bill will have an effect.''
Although the bill's passage was driven mainly by Democrats, as well as anger over the collapse of Enron, which gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates, one major beneficiary may be President Bush.
He raised $101 million directly from individuals to beat off other Republicans during his run for president in 2000. When signed and in effect Nov. 6, the day after this year's congressional elections, the law would raise the limit on individual contributions from $1,000 to $2,000. Thus, Mr. Bush would have an enormous advantage in 2004 against Democrats.
Although passage of the bill was expected, there was some concern among supporters over a vote to end a Republican-led filibuster against the bill. But the opponents of the bill lost by a bigger-than-expected margin of 68 to 32. One reason is that this is an election year when a third of the Senate must be elected; with supporters of campaign finance reform making Enron the poster corporation for the need for change, many senators did not want to be seen as trying to block it.
Sen. Robert Bennett (R, Utah), a virulent opponent, said, “I have done everything in my power to see this bill does not become law. The amount of money in politics will not diminish through this bill. It will simply stop flowing through political parties. It will come from dark corners [where] we will have no idea [of the source].” But, he added, “I can count.''
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D., S.D.) said, “This will be a landmark piece of legislation that will be written about in history books for years to come.''
This report includes information from the Associated Press.
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