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Bennett can't stop McCain bill

Utahn hoists white flag on his effort to block finance reform

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bob Bennett has conceded defeat in what has been a yearslong war he helped lead to block a campaign finance reform bill by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

He said the bill is an "unconstitutional infringement on the First Amendment" and amounts to "incumbent protection" but will now surely pass in a final vote expected on Monday.

Bennett, R-Utah, threw in the towel after he and others lost a 57-43 vote Thursday on an amendment that would have mandated striking down all of the bill if a court later ruled that any one part of it were unconstitutional.

Bennett said passing that amendment had been the last chance of killing the bill through attaching unfriendly amendments.

"We've run up the white flag . . . but the other side hasn't moved in to take their territory" as Democrats continued to offer minor amendments to the bill, Bennett said. "They may be trying to delay work on the budget," which was scheduled to begin Monday.

The bill would ban "soft money," unrestricted donations by individuals, unions and corporations to political parties. It also bars advocacy groups from running ads targeting specific candidates in the final weeks before an election. It now also increases "hard money" donation limits to candidates and parties.

Bennett and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fought the bill for years with filibusters and parliamentary tactics. However, McCain's unsuccessful run for president last year increased popularity of his proposals and gave him enough votes to win.

But Bennett took several parting shots at the bill.

"It will protect incumbents," he said. "If I had any worry about my own re-election, they should go away now. It will be impossible for a party to recruit candidates except for the very wealthy or people who have the ability to raise large sums on their own. The parties won't be able to offer much help."

He added, "It, ironically, may also mean the end of party conventions. The host committees would have to pay for everything with hard money," which would still have relatively low limits. "That would be very difficult."

McCain, however, argues that banning soft money will reduce the influence of wealthy special interests and put them on more even footing with ordinary people.

Bennett argues that "money is speech" — since it pays for delivering political messages — and that limiting donations or banning ads at certain times of the year are unconstitutional infringements on First Amendment rights.

"This was a fight worth waging because I did it on First Amendment grounds. Others, I dare say, were fighting . . . thinking this provision will help Republicans and hurt Democrats, or vice versa," Bennett said.

Bennett has proposed alternate reform that would not limit political donations but would require that all be quickly disclosed (within 48 hours or so), to allow voters to decide whether money a candidate or party accepts is prudent.

Bennett said he figures the reform bill will also pass the House, where it passed in previous years by large margins.

President Bush in a press conference Thursday did not say whether he would sign the final bill. "I'll look at the whole bill, and I'll make my determination as to whether or not the bill improves the situation," he said.

Meanwhile, McConnell vowed to immediately challenge the bill in court if it is enacted and predicted that many parts will be found unconstitutional.