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Senate Discusses Overhaul Of Campaign Finance Laws

By Nick Anderson

The Senate dove into a bracing, unpredictable debate on campaign finance reform Monday, narrowly defeating a Republican-sponsored proposal to help candidates whose opponents use personal fortunes to get elected.

At day’s end, it appeared the Senate was groping for compromise on a proposal by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) to raise quarter-century-old contribution limits under certain circumstances for candidates who square off against wealthy, self-financed opponents.

For a time, the debate shifted the Senate’s attention from so-called “soft money” -- the unlimited donations to parties that have been the focus of reform proposals -- to “hard money” -- the federally limited contributions that candidates may use to fund election advertisements.

But the day’s action underscored the parliamentary strength of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), author of legislation to ban soft money.

At McCain’s urging, the Senate voted 51-48 to table, or block, Domenici’s proposal. The proposal was the first amendment offered to the reform bill McCain is sponsoring with Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis). Three Democratic senators -- Jon S. Corzine and Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey and Herb Kohl of Wisconsin -- switched their votes at the last minute to back McCain.

The outcome was an initial setback for the Senate Republican leadership in a debate that could take many turns over the next two weeks. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the chief opponent of the McCain-Feingold measure, both voted to move the Domenici plan forward.

After the vote, Domenici complained that he had been treated unfairly. McCain and Democratic leaders, though, pledged to offer a compromise as early as Tuesday.

Domenici had proposed to force wealthy candidates to declare whether they would dip into their fortunes and how much they would spend. Under his proposal, candidates opposing those who intend to spend $500,000 in personal wealth could seek contributions at three times the current limit ($1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for political action committees). Those up against $1 million or more in personal wealth would be allowed unlimited aid from their parties.

Coming on the first day of the most extensive Senate debate on campaign reform in at least eight years, the proposal was the opening gambit by opponents of the McCain-Feingold bill. The opposition strategy is to replace the bill with a less-restrictive version or to kill it through amendments.

Proponents said McCain-Feingold, which also would impose new restrictions on advertising by outside groups during campaigns, is the only viable solution to a system run amok. Soft-money donations have exploded in recent years as the two major parties engage in a political arms race.

“I am ready to truly clamp down on this obscene situation,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who lamented that running a winning campaign in the nation’s most populous state in 1992 forced her to raise about $12 million and in 1998 about $20 million. Now, Boxer says, the tab may be up to $30 million. She said she’d have to raise more than $10,000 a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, for the full six years of her term to reach that sum.