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Senate finance debate

(Associated Press)/WASHINGTON -- With a blend of street theater and speechmaking, the U.S. Senate raised the curtain on a freewheeling debate over legislation to limit the role of money in politics.

"It's time to end business as usual," Sen. John McCain said Monday as the bill's supporters prevailed in the first show of strength.

"If people think money in politics is so pernicious, they should change the First Amendment" and its guarantee of free speech, countered Sen. Mitch McConnell, McCain's foe throughout long years of political sparring over the issue.

McCain -- a Republican from Arizona who failed in his bid for the U.S. presidency last year -- and his allies prevailed at day's end in the first skirmish, narrowly turning back an amendment to raise the limits on donations to candidates facing wealthy, self-funding rivals. The vote was 51-48, and came after unusually intense public lobbying in the well of the Senate that persuaded three Democrats to switch their votes.

The debate marked the sixth time since 1995 that McCain, Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, and other lawmakers have pushed a campaign finance measure to the Senate floor. Two weeks were allotted for debate, a departure from previous years when Republican leaders set out to kill versions of the bill as quickly as possible.

The legislation would ban so-called soft money, the loosely regulated, unlimited donations that unions, corporations and individuals make to the political parties. It also would place restrictions on certain types of political advertising broadcast within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary.

Together, the two parties raised more than dlrs 480 million in soft money in the last two-year election cycle. Separately, candidates of both parties were bombarded with attack ads financed by outside groups, commercials that escaped disclosure because they did not expressly advocate the election or defeat of any individual politician.

A rival measure, advanced by Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, and encouraged by the White House, would limit soft money donations but not ban them. It also would raise the limits, unchanged since 1975, on donations that individuals may make to candidates.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi and an opponent of past versions of the bill, told reporters that if anything passes the Senate, "it will be an amalgam of those two bills and other ideas that are pending out there."

In the run-up to the debate, McCain and Feingold staged a bit of senatorial street theater, walking from the Capitol to the front steps of the Republican National Committee headquarters building, and then to the Democratic headquarters.

"If we fail to pass this bill, history will remember that this Senate faced a great test and we failed," Feingold said after formal proceedings had begun on the Senate floor. "That the people accused us of corruption, and in our failure to pass a real reform bill, we confirmed their worst fear."

(c) 2001 Associated Press

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