In the first setback to Senators John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, the Senate narrowly voted tonight to extend their campaign finance bill's restrictions on issue advertising by unions and corporations to all outside interest groups in the period just before elections.
The amendment, proposed by Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, passed, 51 to 46, despite warnings by Mr. Feingold and another backer of his bill, Senator John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, that the provision would not pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court.
Arguing for the proposal's defeat, Mr. Edwards said it posed "a very serious constitutional problem" on free-speech grounds.
But the amendment drew votes from Democrats and Republicans who wanted to reduce the number of outside groups running issue advertisements against candidates, as well as opponents of the overall McCain- Feingold bill who jumped at the opportunity to deal the measure a blow.
A number of Senate Republicans who usually oppose any restrictions on issue advertising as an encroachment on free-speech protections voted for the amendment. Their ranks included such party leaders as the majority leader, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, also changed his vote at the last minute to support the amendment. As Mr. Thurmond stood and voted, Mr. McConnell, the chief opponent of the McCain-Feingold effort, was standing at his side.
Over all, 24 Republicans and 27 Democrats voted for Mr. Wellstone's provision.
It was not clear tonight how serious a problem the amendment would pose to the effort to overhaul the campaign finance law. "It's always a downside when you put in a provision you fear is unconstitutional," said Senator Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who supports the McCain-Feingold measure.
But the vote raised the stakes even higher on another battle expected in the next few days - an effort by the bill's opponents to add language saying that if any part of the measure is found to be unconstitutional, then the entire act is struck down.
Such a provision is supported by President Bush, but has long been resisted by the proponents of a campaign finance overhaul. They say the provision is intended to undermine the ban on unlimited and unregulated donations to political parties that is the centerpiece of their bill.
Mr. Thompson said he thought tonight's vote would cause senators to "think longer and harder" about making each part of the bill contingent on whether all the other parts get court approval.
Mr. Wellstone said he had included a provision in his own amendment saying that if it was found unconstitutional the rest of the McCain-Feingold bill would be unaffected.
Mr. Wellstone argued that his measure was needed because the McCain-Feingold bill would rein in advertising by unions and corporations 60 days before an election and 30 days before a primary but would still allow other groups to run "sham issue ads on television."
"I think that without this amendment," he said, "there will be a proliferation of new stealth groups all operating within this loophole."
The vote came as the Senate opened its second week of debate on the campaign finance bill, with proponents of the effort to overhaul the campaign finance law bracing for several make-or-break votes and struggling to fashion a compromise.
After approving the Wellstone amendment, the Senate turned tonight to a rival proposal to the McCain-Feingold bill, a measure sponsored by Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.
Mr. Hagel's bill, which has the support of Republican leaders and tacit backing from the White House, is widely considered the most serious challenge to the McCain-Feingold legislation. "I think we have the votes to defeat it," Mr. McCain said.
The heart of the McCain-Feingold bill is a ban on soft money, the unlimited and unregulated contributions to political parties which reached record sums of nearly $500 million in the 2000 election cycle. The bill also restricts certain types of paid broadcast issue advertising by unions and corporations, which its proponents say is drawn narrowly enough to pass constitutional muster.
Mr. Hagel, by contrast, proposed a cap on such donations to the national parties at $60,000 an election - or $120,000 through a full primary and general election cycle.
To offset that cap, Mr. Hagel would also raise the limits on hard money, the regulated direct donations to parties and candidates, limits that were set into law in 1974.
Mr. Hagel's bill would allow individuals to give $3,000 a candidate each election, instead of the current limit of $1,000. And it would allow donors to give as much as $75,000 a year in cumulative contributions to all federal candidates and parties, instead of the current limit of $25,000. The McCain-Feingold bill would permit a smaller increase in the cumulative donation limit, to $30,000 a year.
Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Mr. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, say that the majority of senators seek some increase in the hard-money limits, now a generation old, and that they were amenable to that to prevail this week.
As the debate continued on the Senate floor, the duo sought to find the level of increase that would maximize Republican support without driving away Democrats, who have generally backed the bill.
"We're slightly narrowing the gap," Mr. McCain said, after a midday-strategy session. "There has to be a very careful balance. It's a razor balance we have to achieve."
A consensus measure was being drawn up by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California. Ms. Feinstein's proposal would increase the individual contribution limit to $2,000 an election, and permit rises in future years to allow for inflation.
Her measure would also raise cumulative donation limits. Individuals would be allowed to donate $65,000 in each two-year election cycle to candidates and political parties.
The Senate today also defeated, 40 to 56, a proposed constitutional amendment by Senator Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, to give Congress the power to place limits on campaign spending.
Alison Mitchell, The New York Times. March 27, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.