Senators narrow focus of bill to 'soft money'; McCain, Feingold seek to make campaign-finance measure filibuster-proof


WASHINGTON -- In an attempt to break the long Senate stalemate on campaign finance, two senators sponsoring overhaul legislation say they will strip down their bill to focus primarily on the large, unregulated donations to political parties that were at the center of controversy in the 1996 election.

The decision by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin to narrow their bill came after the House -- for the second year in a row -- passed more comprehensive legislation Tuesday night, putting the issue of campaign finance back before the Senate.

But it was not at all clear that the legislative tactic would achieve the senators' aim, which is to find enough votes to prevail if senior Republicans again mount a filibuster against the effort to change the campaign law. Democrats who oppose scaling back the comprehensive legislation likely will object to the new language, and the most vociferous Republican critics of the bill were showing no sign of being mollified.

The two senators said in separate interviews yesterday that the new version of their bill would ban the unlimited, unregulated donations to political parties known as "soft money." But it would no longer include new limits on so-called issue-advocacy advertisements by outside groups within 60 days of an election. Those commercials, critics say, purport to explain a policy issue but are, in effect, thinly veiled campaign advertisements.

Last year, the more comprehensive legislation drew a 52-vote majority in the Senate, but not the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster mounted by Republican opponents. With the Senate set to take up the issue again for a week next month, the sponsors say they are trying to find a way to create a new dynamic.

They noted that there will be ample opportunity for senators to amend their bare-bones bill, possibly building legislation that can pass. That would get campaign finance legislation to a House-Senate conference committee that would reconcile the differences between the approaches of the two chambers.

"The reality is that we didn't see 60 votes if you reintroduced McCain-Feingold," said McCain. "I believe that by introducing just the bare bones we can go through an amending process," he added, "hopefully approve a bill, get more votes and go to conference."

Feingold said the two also considered the fact that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other chief opponents of the legislation have long aimed most of their fire at the provisions to regulate issue-advocacy ads, arguing that they amount to an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech.

Now, he said, they could not make that complaint. "This forces them to say that a ban on soft money is wrong," he said.

But it was far from clear yesterday that the sponsors' move would bolster their case. In fact it looked possible that it could fracture their coalition, because many Democrats argue that they are often the targets of issue-advocacy ad campaigns.

Democratic Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, one of the chief sponsors of the House bill, expressed doubts about the maneuver. "We just had a great victory for campaign finance reform, and I hate to embrace the very next day a weaker bill," he said.

Laura Nichols, a spokeswoman for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader, was more blunt. "There's zero support among House Democrats for a watered down campaign finance bill," she said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, McConnell showed no inclination to drop his opposition to even the scaled-down bill. He argued that Republicans needed the large cash infusions that come to the party in soft money to pay for television ads to counter advertisements by organized labor.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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