Senate Approves a `Bill Killer' on McCain-Feingold

Article excerpt

The Senate last night passed an amendment to the campaign finance reform bill that one of its chief sponsors, Sen. Russell D. Feingold, called a "bill killer."

The amendment, which was approved in a surprise vote, also was criticized by the other main sponsor, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, as unconstitutional.

Senators passed on a 51-46 vote an obscure amendment by Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, that would forbid advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association and the Sierra Club from paying for so-called "issue ads" during the last 60 days of federal campaigns.

Mr. Feingold conceded passage of the amendment makes his legislation "more vulnerable" and could be the "bill killer" for the campaign finance limitations that he and Mr. McCain have pushed.

"This raised the stakes for everyone. It's unfortunate a number of Democrats couldn't see what they were doing," the Wisconsin Democrat said.

Before the vote, Democratic aides had said it was unlikely the Wellstone amendment would get 35 votes. But 24 Republicans and 27 Democrats voted in favor of the measure. Voting against the amendment were 25 Republicans, including Mr. McCain, and 21 Democrats, including Mr. Feingold.

Senators voting for the amendment to the bill included most of the Republican leadership and several of the McCain-Feingold bill's toughest critics, including Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

"I want to defeat this bill; I have been very clear about that from the beginning," said Mr. McConnell, who also convinced Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to switch his vote from "no" to "yes" and thus secure a 51st vote for the amendment. "I made a persuasive argument," a grinning Mr. McConnell told reporters when asked why Mr. Thurmond had changed his vote.

"This bill had constitutional problems, now it has more constitutional problems," Mr. McConnell said.

His rivals on the bill agreed.

"If I thought it was constitutional, I would have voted for it," Mr. McCain said afterward.

"It's always a downside when you put in a provision you think is unconstitutional. That's just not good business," added Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican and a supporter of the McCain-Feingold bill.

Besides Mr. McConnell, top Republicans to vote for the Wellstone amendment included Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, Majority Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, Policy Committee Chairman Larry E. Craig of Idaho, and such senior senators and McCain-Feingold opponents as Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

In addition, independent organizations are now likely to ratchet up their efforts to defeat the bill if it appears their ability to advertise is curtailed.

Mr. Feingold said that last night's vote means that "the ball game" is now a vote expected later this week on non-severability - the question of whether courts must strike down the whole bill if any part is found unconstitutional.

Opponents of McCain-Feingold bill are expected to try to attach a non-severability provision.

The Wellstone amendment "will do no harm if the bill is severable," so that the rest will stand even if that part is ruled an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech, Mr. Feingold said.

Mr. Wellstone himself already had argued that his amendment posed no threat to the overall bill.

"Finally, in the event of constitutional problems, the Wellstone amendment is fully severable," said a statement issued from the Minnesotan's office yesterday before the vote.

Before the strategic move by McCain-Feingold opponents, Mr. Wellstone argued that his provision was needed to prevent campaign contributors from creating tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations as a way to get around McCain-Feingold's ban on soft money. …