Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 27, 1998; Page A01
Legislation to overhaul the nation's scandal-ridden campaign finance system died in the Senate yesterday, taking with it prospects for enactment of major changes before November's elections.
Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pulled the bill from the floor and went on to other business after the Senate voted 51 to 48 to end a Republican filibuster against the measure -- nine short of the 60 votes needed to force action.
The vote was roughly the same as it was last fall, when similar legislation succumbed to a filibuster led by Lott and other GOP leaders. The bill's backers had hoped that Senate hearings last year on abuses from the 1996 elections would increase public pressure for action, but that did not happen.
"The bill is dead" and cannot be revived, said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a leading foe of the legislation. "When you have 48 people dug in on an issue, it will not pass."
Several campaign finance measures are pending in the House and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has promised votes by the end of March. Nearly 190 members have signed a discharge petition to force a vote, falling short of a 218-vote majority. Even if the House approves a bill, it would have to clear the 60-vote hurdle in the Senate, an unlikely prospect.
"Unfortunately, the Senate has once again proven that the American people's cynicism about Congress's ability to pass meaningful reform is well-founded," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who played a key role in debate over the measure. "If not for the unwillingness of the leadership to recognize the majority support in the Senate and the nation, we might have prevailed," she added, in a jab at her own party leaders.
At the heart of the bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), was a proposal to ban the unregulated "soft money" contributions to national political parties from unions, corporations and wealthy individuals that gave rise to Senate and House inquiries into 1996 funding abuses.
In an attempt to strike a compromise on knotty issues of labor spending and attack ads, the bill also proposed disclosure of contributions for last-minute "issue ads" that target specific candidates, and banned the use of union and corporate funds for such ads.
In arguments against the bill, McConnell and others said it would stifle debate, violate constitutional free-speech rights and increase government control over campaigns.
At a news conference after the vote, the bill's backers argued that election scandals will continue, and that the American people will eventually rise up and demand action.
"Campaign finance reform may be an idea whose time has not yet come, but it is also an idea that will not die," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Public pressure will grow because "this system is corrupt" and "there will be plenty more people going to jail," McCain predicted. "There will be a display of this awful system in the elections this year," Feingold added.
There was no consensus among supporters, however, on whether to try to attach all or key parts of the bill to other legislation this year or wait until after a new Congress convenes following the fall elections. "I personally don't know if there's any real virtue to attaching amendments [to other bills] unless we can be sure that we have additional votes," McCain said. But many Democrats, including Feingold, appeared inclined to try to pass at least some parts of the bill this year.
In yesterday's vote, Democrats voted solidly to end the filibuster, joined by seven Republican moderates: McCain, Snowe, Collins, John H. Chafee (R.I.), James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.).
Although Lott can claim victory in shelving the bill, he also suffered defeats. Not only did a majority of the Senate signal support for McCain-Feingold in two votes this week but Lott failed to muster even a majority to shut off a Democratic filibuster against an alternative he proposed.
Despite their own campaign abuses two years ago, Democrats have signaled they intend to use campaign finance as an issue in this fall's congressional campaigns. "It will be an issue . . . it's going to grow," Democratic National Committee Chairman Roy Romer said after the vote.
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