Senators move to open up 'stealth PACS' with lopsided vote
WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to require full disclosure by those anonymous, tax-exempt political groups known as "527s," acting perhaps in time to affect the November elections.
The measure passed the Senate by a 92-6 vote early Thursday, and would be the first overhaul of federal campaign finance law in more than two decades.
The bill would require such groups to disclose the identities of their officers to the Internal Revenue Service; report all campaign-related spending in excess of $500; and disclose the names of people who contribute more than $200 to the organization. President Clinton has said he will sign the bill, and supporters urged that it be sent immediately to the White House for his signature.
The legislation's Senate backers included Arizona Republican John McCain, Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman and Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, sponsors of a wider-ranging campaign finance bill that has been stymied in the upper chamber. McCain said Thursday the 527 bill was a first step toward broader reforms.
"This bill will not solve what is wrong with our campaign finance system," he said. "It will not do away with the millions of soft money dollars that are polluting our elections. We must yet undertake the task of doing away with soft money and make our government more accountable to the people we represent."
The bill passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday by a 385-39 vote.
McConnell, DeLay say bill unconstitutional
Many Republicans who oppose campaign finance limits on First Amendment grounds support disclosure of contributors. Others, such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who has his own "527" organization, argue that a disclosure requirement violates the First Amendment because it intimidates tax-exempt groups.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republicans' chief critic of campaign finance laws, called the measure an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and downplayed its affect.
"How many significant pieces of legislation have passed the Congress, the Senate, 92-6?" he said after the vote. "I rest my case."
McConnell had urged his colleagues to vote for the bill, saying a 'no' vote would be difficult to defend to constituents. He predicted that it would be challenged in court and eventually struck down.
"I do not think this is a spear worth falling on, shall I say, four months in advance of an election," he said.
The Senate still must vote again on the measure for procedural reasons.
'Something real and dynamic has happened'
Feingold disagreed with McConnell's assessment, saying the bill would put more information before the public.
"It is not an attempt to silence anyone," he said, urging that the bill be sent to the president for his signature as soon as possible.
"This bill is fair and even-handed. It affects groups on both sides of the
political spectrum, it is not aimed at any particular group or players in the
election, it is aimed at getting rid of secrecy," Feingold said.
Lieberman credited McCain's failed presidential bid for spurring the bill that passed Thursday.
McCain was the subject of a campaign attack ad paid for by "Republicans For Clean Air," created by supporters of GOP rival George W. Bush, during the GOP presidential primary season. Groups aligned with Democrats, such as the Sierra Club, also have "secret" PACS that run advertisements against Republican candidates.
While McCain's presidential aspirations faltered, "Something real and dynamic has happened," Lieberman said. "We formed a real hearty band of bipartisan, bicameral reformers. ... We're going to keep charging here until we get the job done."
CNN Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report.