Washington A bill that would bring sweeping changes in the way political campaigns are financed cleared its last major legislative hurdle in the Senate on Thursday, setting up a final vote and likely passage Monday.
The bill would ban unregulated, unlimited contributions to the national political parties by individuals, labor unions and corporations, known as soft money. It would also restrict advertising in which special-interest groups mention a candidate by name in the 60 days before an election.
Proponents protected the bill's major elements Thursday when they fended off an amendment by foes who wanted the Supreme Court to strike down all provisions in the bill if any of its parts were ultimately ruled unconstitutional.
The vote to defeat the amendment was 57-43. Most Democrats opposed the amendment, and most Republicans supported it, but there were several defections on both sides.
"I believe we're over our last hurdle, but we just don't know," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the bill's chief sponsors.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who authored the defeated amendment, said that outside groups such as unions and corporations would become too powerful and candidates and parties too weak if the Supreme Court were to strike down restrictions on such groups' ads while leaving the soft money ban intact. Supporters argue that such a scenario could leave parties and candidates unable to respond to last-minute attack ads.
But McCain and others said the amendment was simply a back door way to kill the key provision in the legislation the soft money ban.
With the defeat of the amendment, even the bill's most ardent opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he expected the measure to pass quickly.
The Senate is scheduled for a final vote on the bill Monday after considering minor amendments today.
McCain said he was "gratified" but not yet ready to declare victory. Even if the measure passes the Senate, it must get through the House and President Bush must sign it, he noted.
"It's not over yet," McCain said. "The day I'll be celebrating is the day the president signs it, not before."
Bush, who fought McCain in a bruising presidential primary battle last year, has not said whether he will sign the bill. The president has said he favors banning soft money contributions from unions and corporations, but not from individuals.
"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. ... I look forward to signing a good piece of legislation," Bush said.
McCain and co-sponsor Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have maintained for years that large soft money leaves politicians beholden to wealthy contributors rather than to the voters who elected them.
Opponents say that banning soft money would weaken the political parties and curtail donors' free speech rights.
Soft money contributions amounted to $487 million in the last election cycle, up from $271 million in 1996 and $86 million in 1992, according to the Federal Election Commission.