WASHINGTON — As long-awaited debate began Monday and Tuesday on a major campaign finance reform bill that he detests, millionaire Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, fought it by taking an unusual stance.
He pushed an amendment — which may lead some in Congress to drop support for the overall bill — that takes away advantages of millionaire candidates who use vast amounts of their own wealth to run, like, say, Bennett did in 1992.
Or like what millionaire Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, did in 1996. Or millionaire former Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000. Or former Rep. Enid Greene, R-Utah, in 1994, with money from an ex-husband who faked being a millionaire.
Bennett said the only way non-millionaire opponents of such people can avoid being swamped is to lift donation limits they face. That way, their donors can provide much larger contributions than now allowed to help them keep up.
Bennett noted that millionaire Joe Cannon spent $6 million of his own money against Bennett in the 1992 GOP primary. The only way Bennett could compete was to spend $2 million of his own. He said non-millionaires do not have that luxury, and need donation limits lifted in such situations.
However, supporters of the overall campaign finance reform bill by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., initially saw that amendment as the first of many expected over the next two weeks designed to peel away votes from their main bill.
They initially killed it on a 51-48 vote Monday — a first setback for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Bennett, who are leaders of the opposition to the McCain-Feingold.
But on Tuesday morning, McCain announced they had reached agreement on a reworked version of the amendment, which he said should easily pass as soon as final language was ready.
It included provisions to ensure that a non-millionaire could use increased limits only to match — not exceed — amounts spent by self-funded millionaires.
Congress has many millionaire members who largely self-finance their own campaigns, and the initial and reworked amendment by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., that Bennett supported could lead some to rethink support of the overall bill.
Bennett opposes the McCain-Feingold bill saying it would infringe on freedom of speech by banning many types of donations by special-interest groups. He prefers full disclosure of all political money instead. McCain says his bill would lessen the influence of wealthy special interests.
Bennett argued that his real-life experience against Joe Cannon shows that the amendment pushed Monday and Tuesday is fair and needed.
He said, "With my opponent spending $6 million of his own money, it was just assumed he was going to win and everyone thought I was wasting my time." He added, "The only money I got was from members of my own family, a few friends who felt sorry for me and a couple of others who came across because they believed in me" — so he had to spend $2 million of his own to get out his message.
Of note, court rulings have allowed candidates to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their races — but upheld federal limits of $1,000 per race by individual, outside donors, and $5,000 per race by political action committees.
"I had an opponent who outspent me three-to-one, but because I had sufficient money to get my message out, I was able to defeat him. I think we ought to give that same opportunity to every other opponent who has a message faced with that kind of challenge," Bennett said.
Opponents argued initially that allowing different donation limits for different candidates would be unconstitutional, and could kill the entire bill if challenged in court.
The McCain-Feingold bill — supported mostly by Democrats — in recent years had been blocked by filibusters. However, support was sparked in it last year by McCain's presidential campaign — and because Democrats picked up four seats in last year's election, earning a 50-50 split in seats.
That gave McCain leverage to negotiate for full debate on it this year, although it faces a barrage of proposed amendments over the next two weeks — and it will be a challenge for him to hold his coalition of support together.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., also said Republicans will insist that language be included that if part of the bill is ever found unconstitutional, that the entire bill would also be unconstitutional. He said it would help ensure that all parts of deals for the legislation remain intact, although bill supporters saw that as a backdoor way to possibly kill it.