WASHINGTON – After seven years of negotiations, the Senate passed a campaign finance reform bill 60-40 on Wednesday, overhauling rules on television advertising and banning "soft money" donations to national political parties.
President Bush said he will sign the bill, though he called it "flawed in some areas."
"What we've really done for a couple of hundred million Americans is to give them the opportunity to be heard again. ... They've been rendered silent by the influence of big money," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a sponsor of the bill whose commitment to the reform became a platform issue in his unsuccessful bid for president in 2000.
Critics promised a swift court challenge.
"I am consoled by the obvious fact that the courts do not defer to the Congress on matters of the Constitution," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the measure's most prominent Senate critic.
"We have allowed a few powerful editorial pages to prod us into infringing the First Amendment rights of everyone but them," he said.
"The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall, and I will sign them into law," Bush said in a written statement.
The House passed the measure last month on a vote of 240-189. Bush and his team reluctantly began preparing for a signing ceremony as early as next week that will include the bill's sponsors, including his 2000 presidential primary foe McCain.
The centerpiece of the bill is a ban on unlimited "soft money" donations, typically five- and six-figure donations made by corporations, unions and individuals to national political parties rather than candidates.
State and local parties could accept up to $10,000 a year in soft money per donor for voter registration and other party building affecting federal candidates.
Another key provision would ban the use of soft money to buy "issue ads" within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary. These ads are customarily purchased by political parties or outside groups. And while they stop short of expressly advocating the victory or defeat of a candidate, they often are harshly critical.
The bill does raise the limit from $1,000 to $2,000 that an individual can contribute to each candidate.
The changes will take effect on Nov. 6, leaving current fundraising rules in effect through the mid-term election season.
The Senate's vote capped a decade of struggle on the issue, and seven years of wrestling with the McCain-Feingold version of reform, named after sponsors McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
The House passed Shays-Meehan bills, the House version named after Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., twice in the late 1990s over the objections of GOP leaders.
McCain and Feingold didn't have as much luck, after multiple Republican-led filibusters in the Senate put an end to debate, even though many of the scandals of the Clinton years would seem to have fueled support for reform.
Feingold detailed them in his remarks before a final vote — the White House coffees and the Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers of the Clinton years; former Vice President Al Gore's visit to the Buddhist temple; revelations that the Chinese military had tried to influence American domestic politics.
After the 2000 elections, though, the move toward reform catapulted with McCain's public profile elevated and control of the Senate turning to Democrats in June 2001.
The collapse of Enron, the energy trading company whose top officials were political donors, also lent to the push for reform.
"We are making headway I think to do something to reduce the cynicism in this country," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., shortly before the final vote.
But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, eagerly lent support to the opponents.
"This bill is blatantly unconstitutional," he said, referring to limitations placed on certain types of donations. The measure is "anti-democratic," as well, he said, and will concentrate power "in fewer and fewer and fewer hands."
Supporters admit that their reforms may not pass constitutional scrutiny but say they must try to eliminate special interest money from politics. Some senators went even further, suggesting that publicly funded campaigns should be the wave of the future.
"Until, Mr. President, we can limit campaign spending, we're going to be in this terrible situation, so we all know, including Mr. Feingold that this bill is not the be all and end all," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
In one White House meeting in advance of the vote, senior advisers briefly discussed whether to stage a signing ceremony. They reluctantly decided that Bush had no other choice, according to two participants who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The president has been lukewarm about the bill, which is opposed by most senior GOP officials, but has chosen not to spend the political capital needed to fight it.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.