The Senate killed campaign finance legislation Tuesday as most Republicans followed their leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, and defeated an attempt to bring the issue to a vote.
Voting 54 to 46, the Senate indicated it supported the bill but fell six votes short of the 60 needed to cut off a GOP-led filibuster and to put the legislation on track for passage.
Even though the bill’s chief sponsor was a Republican, Arizona Sen. John McCain, only eight of the Senate’s 53 Republicans - mostly moderates - voted to end the filibuster. One Democrat, Alabama’s Howell Heflin, voted against doing so.
Sen. Slade Gorton, who collected almost $1.2 million in political action committee contributions during his 1994 re-election bid, supported the filibuster.
“We need campaign finance reform, but this bill takes the wrong approach,” Gorton said.
Washington state’s other senator, Democrat Patty Murray voted to bring the measure up for a final vote.
Lott said the vote spelled the end of Senate action on the measure for the year, arguing that it is “very hard to get campaign finance reform in an election year” when “passions are running too high.”
Despite the latest in a quarter-century of disappointments on the issue, the bill’s proponents vowed to keep fighting. “We will have campaign finance reform because the American people demand it,” McCain said during debate.
The bill, cosponsored by McCain and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., would have set voluntary state-by-state limits on campaign spending and offered incentives for compliance, including free broadcast time and reduced postage rates. It sought to ban or severely limit contributions from political action committees, which are set up by interest groups to influence legislation through contributions to campaigns. It would have curtailed the flow of funds to political parties that escape federal regulation even though they are aimed at influencing federal campaigns. It would have required most of a candidate’s contributions to come from the candidate’s state.
In an attempt to avoid the criticism that helped sink other recent campaign finance reform efforts, the bill’s sponsors dropped direct public funding as an incentive for compliance with spending limits. But critics continued to argue that proposed limits were an unconstitutional abridgment of constitutional rights to free speech and a threat to informed discourse.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the bill’s principal foe, challenged the notion that too much is spent on campaigns, contending Americans spend as much on bubble gum as they do on elections. He also contended enforcement of the law would require a “gargantuan” bureaucracy with a mandate to “restrain the speech of candidates and groups all across the country.”
The bill’s sponsors countered that public cynicism over money in politics is undermining American democracy and free speech should not be confused with trying to buy elections. “A rich man’s wallet is not equivalent to a poor man’s soapbox,” said Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J. For a Senate candidate in California to have to raise $20 million to have a chance of winning is “obscene,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The Senate vote came a year after President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., agreed to seek a bipartisan commission on campaign finance reform, and Gingrich said Tuesday he will move to create such a commission this fall if there is no action on legislation. The House plans to consider a campaign finance bill next month, although details have not been worked out.
The eight Republicans who voted to curtail debate were Sens. William S. Cohen (Maine), James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Nancy Landon Kassebaum (Kan.), McCain, Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Fred Thompson (Tenn.).