WASHINGTON — Senate supporters of campaign finance legislation turned back yet another attempt to derail the bill Thursday, and President Bush said his decision on signing it would be based on whether it improves the system for funding elections.
"I look forward to signing a good piece of legislation," said Bush, who has long opposed the ban on "soft money," the central feature of the Senate bill. "This is a bill in progress, it is a bill that continues to change, and I'll take a look at it when it makes my desk," he said at a White House news conference.
The Senate on Thursday rejected, 72-28, an effort to eliminate another key element of the legislation, a provision to restrict late-campaign political broadcast advertising.
The next battle for supporters of the legislation is protecting it from constitutional challenge.
Senate leaders were hoping for a final vote Thursday on the campaign finance legislation of Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., after nearly two weeks of intense floor action in which backers have acceded to some changes but warded off amendments they considered hostile to their cause.
Still intact were their main goals — to ban the largely unregulated "soft money" donations that corporations, unions and wealthy individuals give to political parties and to restrict in the final 60 days of an election issue ads, which often are barely disguised attacks on or defenses of candidates.
But first they must get by an expected proposal by opponents that would render the entire bill unconstitutional if the Supreme Court finds that any section of it violates First Amendment free speech rights.
With interest groups already primed to challenge restrictions on political advertising, McCain-Feingold backers said the "severability" aspect of the bill — meaning the rest of the bill survives if one part is struck down by the courts — must be maintained. "To make it nonseverable is to destroy the bill," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.
Republicans who see an all-encompassing constitutional provision as a way to bring down the entire bill could be joined by several Democrats concerned that setting up legal firewalls could hurt their party.
Democrats now compete well with Republicans in raising soft money — with both parties taking in more than $240 million in the past election — and it could be to the advantage of Republicans if the Supreme Court upheld the soft money ban but ruled the restrictions on issue ads were unconstitutional.
The Senate on Thursday voted 72-28 to defeat an attempt by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, to eliminate the section of the bill that deals with those ads. "It will draw an arbitrary, capricious and, I would submit, unconstitutional line in the sand 60 days before an election," he said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, author of the provision with Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., countered: "What we are saying is, disclose who you are, let's unveil this masquerade, let's unveil this cloak of anonymity, tell us who you are, tell us your $1,000 donors who are financing these ads to the tune of $500 million in this last election."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., weighed in Thursday, saying he thought there were "some constitutional flaws in the Senate bill." The House will need to consider the bill if it passes the Senate.
On Wednesday, the Senate resolved another divisive issue by voting 84-16 for a compromise plan to raise the limits on the direct, regulated "hard money" contributions that individuals make to candidates and parties.
The $1,000 per-election limit on donations to candidates, in effect since 1974, was raised to $2,000, and the aggregate per year limit for donations to candidates and parties went up to $37,500, from the current $25,000.
Many Republicans sought larger increases, saying $1,000 in 1974 was worth more than $3,000 today, while some Democrats were unwilling to offset the soft money ban with a big boost in hard money. "I support this compromise reluctantly because it is necessary to keep us moving forward," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who worked out the compromise with Feinstein, said he thought it would help secure passage of the bill by bringing more Republicans on board.