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Senate smoothes way

P. Mitchell Prothero & Mark Benjamin (UPI)/WASHINGTON -- The Senate Thursday rejected an amendment to the campaign finance overhaul bill that would have voided the entire law should a court find a portion of it unconstitutional.

The 57 to 43 vote was the last -- and biggest -- amendment victory for sponsoring Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., because the bill's opponents hoped to include the measure as a backstop so the courts could do what they could not: defeat the bill.

Sponsored by Louisiana Democrat John Breaux and Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, the amendment would have removed the so-called "severability" clause that would sever any portion of the law found unconstitutional from the remaining, legally acceptable clauses. Because two portions of the bill that restrict issue advertising during campaigns by outside groups are widely seen as vulnerable to legal challenge, the removal of the language might well have undone the bill at the hands of a judge, even if it were signed into law by the president.

"We were gratified by the vote. And with several senators who had not voted with us in the past," said McCain.

"I feel very good. I think it was a serious threat to the bill," said Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, one of McCain's top Republican allies on the bill, who has brokered several key compromises throughout the two-week debate.

Another Republican, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran -- whose decision earlier this year to support the bill forced the leadership to allow the two weeks of debate -- said that this vote almost ensures overall victory for the controversial measure in the Senate.

"We are on the way to victory. Victory is close," Cochran said.

Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, who has long opposed any further fundraising restrictions, was pithy in his assessment of the decision to kill the amendment, and seemingly accepted that the bill would pass.

"It was a stunningly stupid thing to do," he said of his colleagues' efforts to remove so-called "soft money" donations, which bill supporters consider an unregulated way around campaign finance laws.

The vote came after a day of frantic lobbying and speculation, and delivered a result that surprised almost everyone, especially Common Cause, the interest group helping push the measure. Minutes prior to the vote, its top lobbyist told United Press International that the count looked like a dead heat and 10 Democrats were expected to support the non-severability clause.

That prediction was actually more optimistic than most previous estimates by the group and others: which generally predicted support from 10 to 15 Democrats just hours before. But in the final tally, only six Democrats joined 41 Republicans in voting against the motion to kill the clause.

What made the vote crucial to the success of the bill was a move by the mostly Republican opponents of the reform measure to support an amendment proffered by liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone of Minnesota earlier in the week. The amendment -- which limited outside interest groups, corporations and unions from running political advertising close to an election -- is widely legally vulnerable on free-speech grounds. The conservatives suddenly joined the liberal factions of the Senate in voting for Wellstone's amendment in a marriage that shocked even seasoned observers of Senate action.

Another key vote came Wednesday, when the Senate voted 84-16 to seal a deal brokered by Sens. Fred Thompson and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to more than double regulated "hard" money contributions to political candidates. Those contributions have been capped at $1,000 per candidate and at $25,000 per contributor since 1974.

Although President Bush earlier expressed a preference for an amendment defeated this week by Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel that limited but did not eliminate soft money, Bush is now hinting he might sign an overhaul measure.

First, the Senate must approve the bill -- a vote that could come as early as Thursday evening. It then would go to the House, which has a Republican leadership that opposes the bill as much as McConnell does. Although similar bills sponsored by McCain and Feingold have twice passed the House, that was before it looked like it might actually be enacted -- and some politicians find their feet getting cold whenever considering changes to the system that elected them to office.

But McCain expects to win.

"It is a fact, that it has passed twice through the House of Representatives," he said, adding he hoped that the body would take up the same version he just passed. "We would love to see that."

(c) 2001 United Press International

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