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Senate Opens Debate Regarding Overhaul of Campaign Finances

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post

The Senate Monday opened its latest debate on legislation to overhaul the nation's tattered campaign finance laws, as sponsors appeared well short of the votes to cut off a Republican-led filibuster against the measure.

"Right now we don't have the 60 votes" needed to force the bill to a vote, said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn. Others indicated that the vote count was seven or eight short of 60, just as it was last year when the legislation succumbed to a filibuster.

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., would ban unregulated "soft money" contributions to national political parties, put new curbs on issue advertising that targets specific candidates, and tighten disclosure and other rules aimed at controlling special-interest influence on elections.

These steps are necessary because "Our democracy has become a huge bazaar for powerful traders" who use money to buy influence in Washington, Feingold argued. But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other foes of the bill said it violates constitutional free-speech protections and seeks to limit political participation.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., kicked off the new battle over campaign finance legislation by offering the same alternative to the McCain-Feingold bill that he offered last year. The "paycheck protection" provision, as Republicans describe it, would require labor unions to obtain advance written consent of members before using their dues for political purposes.

Lott described the proposal as essential to assure voluntary participation in politics. Democrats, as they did last year, described it as a "poison pill" aimed at killing the McCain-Feingold bill by turning Democrats against it.

By limiting his alternative to the union dues proposal, Lott offered no new grounds for compromise. Lott also indicated he would probably not allow the debate to continue beyond this week. "We have a lot of things to do and we don't have a lot of time, so . . . I don't envision it going beyond this week," he said.