Senate Barriers Trip Campaign Finance Reform Procedural Votes Dash Hopes For Bill This Year
The Senate crushed an effort to curb the influence of big-money contributors in political campaigns Tuesday.
Sponsors of a reform bill failed to overcome procedural obstacles erected by Republican opponents. Their failure virtually guarantees that this year Congress will not revamp the campaign-finance system that has largely assured the re-election of incumbents.
With the bill’s downfall in the Senate, it is doubtful whether the House will even take up the issue.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared the McCain-Feingold bill dead. “It’s not going to pass today, it is not going to pass tomorrow, it is not going to pass ever.”
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said President Clinton was “very disappointed that an issue of such high concern” was blocked by a procedural vote and blamed Republicans for a “cynical maneuver that will only breed cynicism” about Washington.
“If today they’ve killed campaign-finance reform, that’s an issue they’ll have to explain to the American public,” Lockhart said. Clinton, who is facing legal scrutiny for his own fund-raising practices, vowed in a statement to fight for the bill “as hard as necessary, for as long as necessary.”
But opponents of the campaign-finance bill, headed by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, said the Senate’s action put an end to a “phony” reform effort. He said the bill’s adoption would have “abridged a fundamental American freedom - free speech.”
The critical vote came on whether to end a filibuster against the campaign reform bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis. Supporters fell seven votes short of the 60 necessary to stop a filibuster and force an up-ordown vote on the bill.
The outcome was reminiscent of past efforts by reform-minded members to curb the rising tide of specialinterest money in presidential and congressional campaigns.
The vote Tuesday suggested that there is a bare majority, at least in the Senate, for changing the system. But there has not been enough support to overcome the fierce resistance of a filibustering minority to changing the election-financing rules that incumbents have largely mastered and are loathe to give up.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the outcome meant that opponents of reform “will rejoice like hogs in a corn crib relishing their bounty,” a reference to the continuing flow of campaign contributions.
The McCain-Feingold bill would prohibit unregulated “soft money” contributions to political parties from corporations, labor unions and mostly wealthy individuals. In the 1995-96 election cycle, the political parties collected some $262 million through this loophole in federal election law.
The bill also would make it harder for outside advocacy groups to run television ads calculated to support or defeat particular candidates. Such groups now often get around regulations regarding such ads by claiming they are independent media messages.
McConnell, the Kentucky senator, has argued from the start that any legislation to restrict political discourse, no matter how obnoxious or inaccurate, could not survive a constitutional test in the federal courts.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted to try to save the bill, said she would continue her efforts to seek a compromise, but she acknowledged that the issue was “probably dead now” and would have to be revived next year.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., blamed Lott for sabotaging the campaign-finance bill by proposing a “poison pill” amendment that Lott knew would be unacceptable to Democrats and to Clinton.
Lott’s amendment would have required labor unions to get written permission from their members before spending any portion of their dues for political purposes.
“In America,” Lott proclaimed, “you have a right to say how your dues are used.”
Democrats complained that Republican opponents of the McCain-Feingold bill were unwilling to permit a vote on a companion amendment to require the same written permission from corporate shareholders and members of such advocacy groups as the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club.
“We’re told by Lott’s supporters that when the Ford Motor Co. takes the money of its shareholders and makes a $500,000 soft-money contribution to a political party, that’s perfectly fine,” Feingold complained. “But if the United Auto Workers makes a similar soft-money contribution, that’s not OK.”
Although Lott put himself in sole control of whether to bring the reform back up for debate, supporters could still offer it as an amendment to any must-pass legislation waiting in the Senate wings.
Daschle indicated he was prepared to do that on such bills as renewal of federal transportation policy and a “fast track” trade bill requested by the president.
But Lott and McConnell vowed that any effort to do that would be accompanied by Lott’s union-dues amendment, thus setting up a replay of Tuesday’s impasse.
The McCain-Feingold bill and Lott’s amendment, McConnell said, “are Siamese twins. There’ll not be one without the other.”
Reform supporters were hoping for a public backlash - that has so far failed to materialize - against the Senate’s foot-dragging. Emerging from a party caucus Tuesday, Snowe said, “I think some of us are waiting to see how the public reacts to this.”