McCain-Feingold seems a done deal

After a dramatic final tussle, the first sweeping campaign reform since the 1970s seems ready to pass the Senate.

Published March 30, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

It was 1995 when Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., first offered a bill to reform the way money is raised to fund federal electoral campaigns. And though some legislative maneuvering remains and a final vote isn't scheduled until Monday at 5 p.m. EST, the efforts of the two look as if they have finally paid off. The last controversial amendment failed to pass the Senate Thursday afternoon -- to the dismay of President Bush, the GOP leadership and, behind closed doors, even some Democrats.

The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, anticipated to pass Monday, will ban unlimited, unregulated gifts of campaign cash known as "soft money" to the Republican and Democratic parties. The bill will also ban all "issue" TV and radio ads against candidates funded by labor or corporate dollars within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of an election. Should it ultimately become law, the bill would arguably be the most sweeping campaign reform since the post-Watergate era more than a quarter-century ago.

While Republicans wanted to call for a final vote Thursday evening, Democrats insisted on a few odd amendments. Late into the evening Thursday, an agreement was worked out in which debate could proceed all night, and some votes on amendments were scheduled for Friday. Regardless, with the defeat of the last controversial amendment, the McCain-Feingold bill looked like a fait accompli.

It has been a hard-fought battle, with all sorts of sniping from both the left and the right. Because the Democratic Party had achieved parity with the Republicans last year in raising soft money -- and has never been close to the GOP on regulated, limited "hard" dollars -- many Democrats started peeling from the fold.

"In the course of the last two weeks, I have had more conversations with partisan Democrats than in the last two decades," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the leading opponent of the McCain-Feingold bill. "There's been a sense of panic. There's been a sense of foreboding. They've asked me, 'Are you going to be able to kill this thing?'"

The first Democrat to publicly defect was Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, who despite having voted for a soft-money ban five times before, suddenly didn't find the measure palatable. Breaux joined with McCain's friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., in offering a bill that capped soft-money contributions to parties at $60,000 per individual per election cycle per party. This bill, however, tacitly supported by President Bush, never gained enough support to pose a serious threat to McCain-Feingold.

Keeping the bipartisan coalition together to craft a bill that could earn the support of a majority of the Senate proved tough. Conservatives like Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Jesse Helms, R-N.C., offered a "paycheck protection" amendment that would have offended labor unions and Democrats. Liberals like Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., offered amendments in support of the public financing of elections, which would have caused the seven other Republicans on the McCain-Feingold crew -- Sens. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Thad Cochran of Mississippi -- to defect.

While McCain, Feingold and others on the reform team -- the Republicans mentioned above as well as Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Chuck Schumer of New York -- worked hard to negotiate the difficult terrain, Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., tried to manage his caucus, as well as his own doubts about the bill.

Daschle came to the table supporting campaign finance reform in principle, but had problems with some of the amendments added to the bill. McCain-Feingold advocates saw Daschle as wobbly and occasionally unsupportive. One lobbyist in favor of the bill who spoke with Daschle was left with the impression that Daschle wanted it to pass in theory, but had staffers and key Democratic senators in his caucus who had a deep and real fear that the bill would hurt Democrats more than Republicans. Other senior Democratic staffers confirmed this as well.

But Daschle spokeswoman Ranit Schmelzer argued that her boss "has been an advocate of campaign finance reform since he's been here."

"He worked tirelessly for it this week," Schmelzer said. "He's the reason there was such a strong vote on increasing hard-money limits," which was a major hurdle cleared on Wednesday. That day, Thompson and Feinstein hashed out a compromise on increasing "hard-money" limits on contributions to candidates (limits that hadn't been increased since the post-Watergate reforms), a move that many Democrats oppose.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said that he and many other Democrats voted for the hard-money increase just to move the process forward. Referring to a provision offered by Sens. Snowe and Jeffords that bans certain types of third-party advertising around election time, Dodd said, "Snowe-Jeffords ... and the ban on soft money are the only two reforms in this bill. Thompson-Feinstein is the price you paid for those reforms."

The last major hurdle came on Thursday afternoon, when Republicans, led by McConnell, offered an amendment that stated if any part of the bill were to be found unconstitutional the entire bill would be tossed. Since various provisions in the bill are of debatable constitutionality -- the Snowe-Jeffords provision, plus an amendment to that from Wellstone that would expand the advertising ban to certain nonprofit groups, among others -- the non-severability amendment was opposed by Feingold and his team as "a trap."

A vote in support of the amendment, offered by Bush's liaison to the Senate, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, was referred to repeatedly by McCain and others on his team as "a vote for soft money."

When Frist offered his amendment, the McCain-Feingold crew saw Frist lapsing into his role as "Dr. Evil." As a medical student in Boston in the 1970s, Frist "visited the various animal shelters in the Boston suburbs, collecting cats, taking them home, treating them as pets for a few days, then carting them off to the lab to die in the interests of science," Frist wrote in his 1989 book "Transplant." He describes the side of him that killed the puddy-tats as "Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career."

But though the McCain-Feingold crew viewed Frist's amendment as an attempt to cut out the heart of their pet cause, plenty of his colleagues -- both Democrats and Republicans -- don't see McCain-Feingold as a "cute, furry little creature." They see it as a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. And a partial McCain-Feingold bill that is amputated by the courts may be worse than the bill as written, they argue. If the Snowe-Jeffords amendment is struck down, and the rest of the bill remains, third-party groups could continue to rake in soft-money contributions and run all sorts of ads while political parties would be prevented from retaliating using the same funds.

Sen. Bob "The Torch" Torricelli, D-N.J., was one of the few Democrats to speak publicly in favor of non-severability, arguing that the 1974 campaign finance reforms created this mess precisely because some of them were struck down by courts while others remained as law.

In any case, it was all for naught. Non-severability failed to pass by a vote of 57-43. At around 4 p.m. EST, the amendment was tabled, with most Republicans voting against McCain-Feingold's position, with the exception of the eight McCain-Feingold Republicans, plus five others: Sens. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Sam Brownback of Kansas.

And in the end, though McCain-Feingold supporters thought they might lose up to 15 Democrats on the vote, they lost only six (Breaux, Torricelli and Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Max Baucus of Montana and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings of South Carolina).

Daschle was "the reason there was such a strong vote on non-severability," Schmelzer said. Schumer told reporters that had it not been for Daschle's efforts Thursday, three or four Democrats might have voted the other way. (Of course, an e-mail sent out from McCain's PAC, Straight Talk America, to a list of 200,000 supporters, urging them to call some of the wobblies, may have helped, too.)

In any case, with that victory, McCain, Feingold, Cochran, Levin and Schumer took to the press gallery to proclaim victory. "This was the Senate at its best," Schumer said.

For McCain, the fight began in 1987, when an Oklahoma Democratic senator named David Boren -- now president of the University of Oklahoma -- asked the then freshman senator to work with him on the issue, taking up where his predecessor, Sen. Barry Goldwater, had left off. But McCain and Boren could never agree on the issue of public financing, which McCain opposed.

Eight years later, however, McCain had been through a public financing scandal of his own -- he was one of the tarnished "Keating Five," a group of senators who were rebuked by the Senate for an "appearance of impropriety" involving savings and loan charlatan Charles Keating -- and the issue became his signature cause. Since then, McCain had seen his and Feingold's bill die or be killed once in the 104th Congress, three times in the 105th and twice in the 106th. Thursday, only a few months into the 107th session, it certainly looks as if the bill will pass the Senate. McCain, however, acknowledged that another battle looms in the House. "It's not going to be easy," McCain said.

Near the end of the day, McConnell came out to speak to reporters ("Darth Vader has arrived," he said) to admit defeat -- for now. He said that he hoped the "awful bill" would be improved in the House or the House-Senate conference committee.

And if not, he said, he was prepared to sue. "I'll be meeting with the other co-plaintiffs" next week, he said. "I gotta operate under the assumption that I'll be the Jim Buckley of 2001," he said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case Buckley vs. Valleo, in which the court decided that it was unconstitutional to limit a candidate's spending.

For now, however -- even though he seemed to greet the day's momentous victory with a combination of exhaustion and wariness; even though, as we know, almost anything could happen between now and the vote on final passage -- the moment is McCain's.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Campaign Finance John Mccain R-ariz.