The Senate yesterday buried legislation to ban unlimited contributions to political parties, as Republicans once again used parliamentary tactics to thwart a vote on a measure that has the backing of a majority of senators.
The maneuvering highlighted the sharp differences over the idea of curbing the money flowing into political campaigns, largely through the proliferating use of unregulated "soft money" contributions to the Democratic and Republican parties. Such donations -- from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals -- have come to be seen as a way of getting around the otherwise tight limits on donations to individual political campaigns.
Democrats and a few GOP lawmakers complained that such contributions corrupt the legislative process, while most Republicans fought the legislation as a violation of free-speech rights, an unwarranted government intrusion into campaigns and a threat to their own fund-raising advantage.
Ban proponents showed slight progress in advancing their cause, compared with recent years. Three more Republicans voted for the key provision to ban soft money, producing 55 votes for some kind of reform.
But the bill's proponents were still well short of the 60 votes needed to cut off a GOP-led filibuster, a tactic aimed at preventing an up-or-down vote on the legislation. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the legislation was dead for the year.
Chief sponsors John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) vowed to keep pressing for action, possibly even this year, and insisted they eventually will prevail because of what they described as mounting public anger over the influence of special-interest money in politics.
"I am convinced we will prevail, because there will be more scandals" if Congress fails to act, said McCain, who has made the issue a primary focus of his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
But the successful effort by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to scuttle the measure underscored the ability of a determined minority in the Senate to bottle up a bill despite its approval by the House, support from a majority of senators and strong backing in public opinion polls.
McConnell has prevailed on the issue for four years and said he anticipates continued success. "I'd call it no progress whatsoever," McConnell said after the vote, speaking of the small gains in GOP support for the legislation. "I'd call it pretty, pretty dead. It's a horrible piece of legislation and deserves to be dead."
President Clinton denounced the outcome, calling it "a victory for the politics of cynicism" that "leaves unchecked the influence of moneyed special interests" on politics.
Clinton had supported a measure passed last month by the House to ban soft money, enact curbs on issue advertising mounted by outside groups and strengthen disclosure requirements. Soft money refers to contributions that are not subject to any limits. It is ostensibly for party-building activities, such as research and get-out-the-vote efforts, but is increasingly used for advertising and other activities aimed at promoting each party's candidates.
The McCain-Feingold effort fell victim yesterday to the skillful use of parliamentary tactics by Republicans, and the fate of the legislation was sealed on two key votes.
The first came on the House-passed bill. This vote was 52 to 48 in favor -- eight short of the 60 needed to halt a filibuster -- the same vote that a similar proposal from McCain and Feingold received last year.
The second vote came on a scaled-back version of the House measure, which was limited largely to a soft-money ban. McCain and Feingold purposely limited the scope of the bill to pick up more Republican votes. It received 53 votes.
The House-passed bill drew the support of the same seven Republicans who voted for it last year: Sens. John H. Chafee (R.I.), Susan Collins (Maine), James M. Jeffords (Vt.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and McCain.
The narrower soft-money bill picked up the votes of Republican Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.), Tim Hutchinson (Ark.) and William V. Roth Jr. (Del.), as well as five of the seven backers of the broader bill. But it lost the backing of Chafee and Specter.
All 45 Democrats voted for both bills. Among Washington area senators, only the lone Republican, John W. Warner (Va.), voted against the two proposals.
Within minutes after the votes, Lott sought to shelve the bill by moving on to other business. McCain and his Democratic allies objected, arguing they had been shortchanged on debate time. But Democratic sources said they expect Lott to prevail when the Senate votes on the issue this morning.
Lott's decision to abandon the legislation drew a stinging rebuke from Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who contended that Republicans had gone back on promises of serious debate and votes. Daschle accused Republicans of deciding to "take [their] ball and just go home" without dealing forthrightly with the bill.
But McCain said both parties were to blame for the outcome -- and he faulted himself as well. While Republicans reneged on a promise for a full five days of debate, cutting it off after three days, Democrats made it difficult to act on amendments that could have built support for the legislation, he said.
"It was my responsibility," McCain said. "Maybe I shouldn't have relied on people who said we'd have a fair and open debate."
Despite yesterday's votes, some saw the outlines of a compromise in a proposal by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and four Republicans who are up for reelection next year that would limit -- but not ban -- soft-money contributions, raise limits on individual "hard money" contributions to candidates from $1,000 to $3,000 to account for inflation, and strengthen disclosure requirements.