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Senate opens two-week debate on campaign finance

McCain, left, and Feingold begin their crusade Monday morning.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the Senate opened debate Monday on a bill to ban unlimited contributions to political parties, reform advocates blasted current fund-raising practices as "legalized bribery."

Senate leaders have set aside two weeks to debate the bill sponsored by John McCain and Russ Feingold, who want to ban unlimited contributions to political parties known as "soft money." McCain, R-Arizona, said the bill is needed to restore public faith in politics and change "a system the public believes is corrupt."

Campaign finance reform may tackle donations for access to politicians, but, as CNN's Eileen O'Connor reports, it may not stop the process

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McCain spoke with CNN about the issue

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CNN's Major Garrett says the White House fears the fight over campaign finance reform will be distracting

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CNN's Jonathan Karl says the fight over soft money is making foes out of friends

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Campaign finance reform
Dems to Mccain: Just kidding

"Campaign contributions up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single source are not healthy for democracy," McCain said. "Is that not self-evident? It is to the people."

McCain and Feingold dramatized their message before the debate opened Monday with a walk to each party's national committee offices in Washington.

The McCain-Feingold bill would ban soft money, restrict political advertising by independent groups and enact greater disclosure requirements. Critics argue the bill's limits on spending violate the First Amendment's right to free expression.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is offering a rival bill, warned that McCain-Feingold would limit the ability of people to get involved in politics.

"Democracy is messy," said Hagel, R-Nebraska. "We are going to hear a number of examples of how messy and unfair democracy is in the course of this debate."

But, he said, "the answer to reforming our system is not to shut people out or diminish the ability of our people or institutions to participate in the process."

Hagel's bill is more in line with principles President Bush outlined last week. It would cap soft-money contributions at $60,000 and raise the limit on individual contributions to candidates.

In the 2000 elections, Democrats matched Republicans in the race for soft money for the first time. Democrats hung a hand-lettered banner outside their headquarters in support of the McCain-Feingold bill, but McCain chided them, "Send back the checks, guys."

Feingold, D-Wisconsin, told CNN there are 60 votes for the bill -- enough to ward off a filibuster. McCain said the real threat is from amendments that could weaken the bill's support among moderate senators or a procedural vote that could force the Senate to move to other business -- which takes only 51 senators.

Feingold predicted Democrats will stand united in support of change.

"We are not interested in reshaping or reforming soft money. We're interested in getting rid of it," said Feingold, who in an earlier interview with CNN compared the current campaign finance rules to "legalized bribery and legalized extortion."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, will allow members to offer amendments frequently during the debate.

"I think we should look at how it should be improved rather than whether there will be an up-or-down vote on the McCain-Feingold bill," Lott said.

He said "a lot has changed" since the $1,000 limit on direct contributions to candidates was imposed in 1974, and those limits should be moved upward. Disclosure rules should be tightened as well, he said.

"Certainly part of what Sen. Hagel is proposing is very good, and I think that it probably will be added to McCain-Feingold and maybe some other ideas too," Lott said.

The parties are supposed to use soft money for party-building activities, but it typically is spent in a way that benefits a particular candidate. Soft money contributions have ballooned in recent years. The two major parties collected roughly $500 million in soft money contributions during the past election cycle.

Democrats have strongly supported McCain-Feingold in the past, but the bill has faced strong GOP opposition and died in the Senate. With the Senate split 50-50 this year, the legislation is widely viewed as having its best chance of passage ever, although one Democrat, John Breaux of Louisiana, has already announced his opposition.

"We're asking incumbents to vote to change a system that keeps incumbents in office, and every special interest that uses money in order to buy access and influence is apoplectic about the prospect of losing that influence," McCain said.

The issue formed the core of McCain's presidential bid last year. Reform advocate Doris Haddock, who made a symbolic walk across the country last year to push for campaign finance reform, called it "the linchpin for everything else."

Haddock, known as "Granny D," said that without campaign finance reform, other needed reforms will be blocked by special interests whose donations get their viewpoints noticed.

"It's a turnaround in the road. It's only the tip of the iceberg, but it's the beginning of a change in our government back to democracy, not to elections bought and paid for by big-money men and special interests," she said.

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Jonathan Karl: McCain presses on with campaign-finance reform - January 23, 2001
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Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona
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