Senate gives final approval to campaign fund reform


WASHINGTON -- Brushing aside a veto pledge from President Bush, the Senate gave final approval yesterday to a bill to limit congressional campaign spending and provide federal subsidies to candidates.

The bill, which would also restrict the amount that House and Senate candidates could accept from political action committees, passed 58-42, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto. Just three Republicans voted for the bill, and only two Democrats voted against it.

Sponsors decried the mounting influence of powerful lobbies on House and Senate elections as opponents denounced the use of public money to offset that influence.

The Senate debated the bill for three days amid a growing controversy over Mr. Bush's role in helping raise tens of millions of dollars for Republican candidates through appeals to wealthy donors and corporate executives.

This week, for example, Mr. Bush keynoted a GOP fund-raiser in Washington that brought in more than $7 million. Part of the money was collected by a process known as "bundling": gathering contributions from a number of people, often corporate officers, for contribution to a candidate or party.

Bundling would be prohibited by the bill that will go to Mr. Bush this week. The House passed the bill last month.

Mr. Bush has vowed to veto any proposal that contains spending limits and public subsidies.

Mr. Bush's opposition to public financing drew a sharp rebuke from Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, who noted that Mr. Bush has benefited from $200 million in public financing for his vice presidential and presidential campaigns.

"The president can't have it both ways," Mr. Mitchell chided.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, criticized Mr. Bush for taking part in fund-raising activities that draw heavily from wealthy contributors and special interests with business before the government.

But public-interest lobbies, including the League of Women Voters, pointed out that candidates in both parties often tap well-to-do donors and PACs.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, said Democratic senatorial candidates this year have raised $2 million from about 4,000 contributors -- an average of $500 per donor. Republican candidates, he said, raised $14.5 million from 314,000 donors -- an average of $45.

"These figures suggest it's the Democrat Party which is the party of so-called 'fat cats'," Mr. Dole said.

The bill also would ban the use of so-called "soft money," collected mainly from large donors and labor unions. Such money is used to finance party and interest-group activities to identify voters and turn out the vote on Election Day.

It has been used in the past to skirt spending limits and public financing in presidential campaigns.

"This institution is in trouble," said Sen. David L. Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who is the bill's chief sponsor. "Never have the approval ratings for Congress as an institution, or for individual members, been as low as they are now."

This mounting disaffection, he contended, could be allayed by campaign reforms.

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