WASHINGTON - After a successful overnight vote in the House, the drive to enact the most far-reaching campaign spending bill in decades returned yesterday to the Senate, where it faces at least one final procedural hurdle.
Majority Leader Tom Daschle urged the Senate, which has passed a similar measure, to agree to a quick review of changes made by the House once the bill formally goes to the Senate after next week's Presidents Day recess. If supporters can defeat a possible filibuster, the bill would go to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law.
Advocates say the measure would help reduce the influence of big money in Washington by outlawing the unlimited "soft money" donations that unions, corporations and people increasingly make to the national parties. Such contributions totaled nearly $500 million in the 2000 election.
"Because of what the House has done, we have the first real chance in a generation to limit the access of special interests in the political process," Daschle said of the bill, which would take effect after this year's election cycle.
Voting shortly before 3 a.m., the House approved the sweeping overhaul of campaign finance laws 240-189. The vote came after a 16-hour debate, during which bipartisan supporters of the measure fought off a series of attractive amendments that were intended to siphon off support for the bill in the Senate.
In addition to the ban on soft money, the measure would curb certain "issue" ads run by outside groups shortly before elections. It would also raise the limits on the regulated "hard money" donations that individuals can make directly to campaigns.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is the leading Senate opponent of the measure, said he was not ready to agree to speedy consideration of the bill and had not decided whether to launch a filibuster. But he seemed to be preparing for a graceful way to accept Senate passage of a measure he had long fought to defeat.
"I'm somewhat conflicted," McConnell said. "There are parts I like and parts I don't like, parts I'm sure we can knock out in court and parts I'm not certain about."
McConnell said he was "very pleased" about increases in individual and aggregate contributions that individuals could make directly to campaigns - the first such increases since the 1970s.
The amount that could be given directly to each candidate for federal office per election would rise to $2,000 from the current $1,000. And the combined total that any donor could give to federal parties and candidates in any two-year election cycle would rise to $95,000 from the current limit of $25,000.
By contrast, McConnell said, a provision to bar interest groups from using corporate or union money to run issue ads shortly before elections is so flawed that the Supreme Court would strike it down as unconstitutional. He said he planned to be the first person to file suit over the legislation.
Among the questions McConnell must resolve over the next 10 days is whether he has the support of 40 other senators to support amendments or delaying tactics to block the legislation. A similar measure passed the Senate nearly a year ago with 59 votes - one short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat who voted against the bill last year, announced that he would support a move to break a filibuster.
"I think it's time to get something done," Hollings said.
But other senators who previously supported the bill might shift positions after reviewing House changes to the measure. Most of the changes were made after close consultation with Senate supporters.
One exception was the elimination of a requirement that television broadcasters must give candidates and political parties that run ads shortly before an election the lowest rate they charged any advertiser during the previous six months. Broadcasters had lobbied heavily against that provision and persuaded the House to knock it out.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who sponsored the broadcast ad proposal in the Senate, said he was "reserving judgment" on what action he might take in response.
Meantime, Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, announced that he was withdrawing his previous support for the legislation.
Despite the potential obstacles in the Senate, sponsors of the measure, who have been working for nearly a decade to rewrite federal campaign finance laws, were in a celebratory mood yesterday. They said they believed they were on the verge of passing sweeping legislation that could finally become law.
"We shared a wonderful moment last night with our colleagues from the House," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who made campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his 2000 presidential campaign.
During the mid-1990s, McCain teamed up with Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, and the two joined forces with another bipartisan pair in the House: Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat.
"We believe the agenda for America has a better chance of passing by removing the soft money," Meehan said yesterday.
The legislation was backed by 41 Republicans who defied their party leadership and all but 12 Democrats. Six of the eight House members from Maryland joined with the majority to approve the measure. Among them was Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat who had been the lead sponsor of a failed alternative bill to limit, but not ban, soft money.
Two Republicans - Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland - voted against the bill. The two other Maryland Republicans - Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore and Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County - voted with the majority.
Officially, the White House remained noncommittal yesterday about whether Bush would sign the legislation. But his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the president was pleased that the House had removed a provision that Republicans said would have allowed soft money to be used this year to pay off debts that would otherwise require the use of hard money.
And Bush is widely expected to sign into law whatever legislation reaches his desk.
"I think the president has made clear that he would like to sign something that will improve the system," Fleischer said.
"Many aspects of the bill improve the system," the spokesman said. "There's some other things that don't improve it to the degree the president would seek. But ultimately, the process is moving forward, and the president is pleased."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.