Campaign Finance Bill Passes Senate

Campaign finance legislation emerged from the Senate after two grueling weeks and headed to the House, where it faced yet another set of obstacles.

Just getting a vote could be a problem in the House since Republican leaders there are hostile to the measure itself and also see it as taking away from time needed to pass President Bush's agenda.

If the House passes legislation different from the Senate version, it could require a House-Senate conference, a graveyard for other major bills in recent years, and more House and Senate votes if a compromise is reached. Then it's on to an uncertain fate at the White House.

Bush has opposed the main aspect of the legislation that passed the Senate 59-41 Monday, a ban on loosely regulated "soft money" donations made by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to the political parties. But he has said he was willing to sign a bill that "improves the system."

If he does, the new law still would run into almost instant court challenges from opponents who argue that many of its provisions, including items that restrict the political advertising of interest groups in the final 60 days of an election, violate First Amendment free speech rights.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chief adversary of the bill championed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., says he will meet with allies this week to plan legal strategy to strike it down in the courts.

"I'm sure there are going to be court challenges on all parts of it," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., who voted against the bill. "So it still has a way to go."

"The challenge in the House is to get a date where we can vote on this bill," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., sponsor of the McCain-Feingold counterpart in the House with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. He said his hope was to get the bill to the House floor by May.

"Soft money has been the root of most of what ails our campaign finance system today — the White House coffees, the Lincoln bedroom, alleged contributions from the Chinese military" to the Democratic National Committee, said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J. "I urge Speaker (Dennis) Hastert to take charge and show leadership by scheduling prompt House consideration."

Hastert, R-Ill., hasn't made any commitments on a date yet. "We've been focused on getting tax relief for the American people, and that will take precedence right now," said his spokesman, John Feehery. Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, has pledged to do whatever he can to defeat the bill.

The House has passed campaign finance legislation twice, in 1998 and 1999, only to see the bill die in the Senate, and Shays and Meehan are confident they still have a solid majority. Less certain is whether they can come up with a final product that the Senate can endorse without requiring a House-Senate conference made up of negotiators appointed by GOP leaders out to see the bill stopped.

McConnell said the 41 votes against the bill sent a "clear message" to both the House and the White House that Senate opponents have the votes to sustain a presidential veto if the bill that emerges from Congress is not to the president's liking.

Meehan said the Senate-passed bill was very similar to his and "meets the test of true reform." But some House Democrats, including Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, have expressed concern about provisions in the bill to raise the direct "hard money" contributions an individual may make to candidates and parties. The donation to a candidate is doubled to $2,000 per election.

That provision, and another allowing hard money contributions to rise when a candidate faces a rich, self-financing opponent, apply only to Senate candidates and some adjustments will be needed in the House bill.

In the background is a formidable coalition of groups — ranging from the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union to the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association — that see the bill as a violation of their right to influence the political process. They are determined to defeat the bill either in Congress or in the courts.

McCain, who first joined Feingold in introducing campaign finance legislation more than five years ago, said he would "go to my grave deeply grateful" for being a part of the effort to reduce the influence of big money in politics. "But the time we're going to pop a cork," he said after the vote, "is the day the president signs this bill."