WASHINGTON – Hours after the House passed the most significant campaign spending bill in a generation, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said the Senate was ready to take up the measure immediately and he would fight an expected filibuster.
"I'm going to seek consent to go to this bill the minute we receive it," Daschle, D-S.D., said Thursday at a news conference of proponents of the legislation. It would end the flow of millions of dollars in unregulated "soft-money" contributions to the national political parties.
President Bush's spokesman was noncommittal about whether Bush would sign the measure if it clears the Senate. "I think the president has made clear that he would like to sign something that will improve the system," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
"Many aspects of the bill improve the system. There's some other things that don't improve it to the degree the president would seek. But ultimately, the process is moving forward and the president is pleased," Fleischer said. Daschle said he expected the president to sign the bill.
Daschle also urged House Republican leaders, who opposed the bill sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., not to delay its delivery to the Senate. "Don't obstruct reform any longer," he said.
Meehan said the bill, which passed at 2:30 a.m. Thursday after a marathon 16-hour debate, was "the most fundamental change in our democracy in a generation."
Meehan and Shays succeeded in defeating a dozen attempts to kill their bill or sidetrack it with damaging amendments. Forty-one Republicans and one independent joined 198 Democrats in voting for the bill, while 12 Democrats, 176 Republicans and one independent were opposed.
Senate backers, led by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., need 60 votes to stop a likely filibuster and win approval for sending the bill directly to Bush for his signature. The Senate vote last year was 59-41. "We're going to find the time and find a way to break that filibuster," Daschle said.
If the Senate does not accept the House version, a conference committee would be needed to reconcile the differences — albeit minor ones — between the two measures.
Congress hasn't changed campaign spending rules since the post-Watergate year of 1974 despite repeated efforts in the past decade to do something about the explosive growth of soft money in the political system. These unregulated donations that corporations, unions and individuals make to national parties, often in hundreds of thousands of dollars, grew from $86 million in the 1992 presidential election to $500 million in the 2000 election.
"Soft money is now being given in a shameful way," said Rep. Zack Wamp, R-Tenn. "It has proliferated beyond measure in recent years and it is a real corrupting influence."
Shays-Meehan would ban such donations to national parties, although it would allow soft-money contributions to state and local parties, in amounts up to $10,000. None of that money could be used for political ads.
It also bans the use of soft money to finance "issue ads" — that in effect are often used to attack candidates — during the 60 days leading up to an election, or 30 days before a primary.
Republican foes said the bill would weaken the national parties and was unconstitutional. "This bill strips citizens of their political rights and unconstitutionally attempts to regulate political speech," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranked House Republican.
Affected groups said they were already planning court challenges. "We'll be at the courthouse door if this misguided legislation becomes law," said Bill Miller, political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Ultimately I think this issue is going to be decided by nine men and women in black robes (at the Supreme Court)," said Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association.
Shays and Meehan note that the courts have repeatedly upheld legislation to regulate various aspects of campaign spending.
The Shays-Meehan bill emerged virtually intact after the defeat of two GOP-backed substitutes and nine amendments aimed at changing the bill enough to force a House-Senate conference, where supporters feared the measure would be stalled indefinitely.
The closest call on a "poison pill" amendment came when lawmakers on a 219-209 vote refused to exempt soft-money advertising restrictions on matters pertaining to the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.
The House approved two amendments bringing the bill in line with the previously passed Senate measure. One raised to $2,000 the $1,000 limit on regulated, hard-money donations individuals can make to House and Senate candidates. A "millionaire's amendment" raised hard-money contribution ceilings for candidates running against wealthy opponents spending their own money.
The House voted 327-101 to remove a provision requiring television stations to give candidates the lowest possible rate for ads in the 60 days before an election.
Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, said the requirement "creates a new perk for candidates for federal office." But Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who won approval of the provision in the Senate, said that without the lower prices "challengers will never be able to mount effective campaigns in large metropolitan areas."