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Legal team emerges to fight campaign bill

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Less than 24 hours after the U.S. Senate approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation's campaign finance laws, a prominent legal team emerged Thursday to challenge the legislation in court.

They argue the bill, which bans soft-money donations to national political parties and places limits on some advertisements before an election, is unconstitutional.

Legal heavyweights Kenneth Starr and Floyd Abrams, who will head up the legal team, announced Thursday they will head to court as soon as President Bush signs it, which he has promised to do. The Senate passed the measure 60-40 Wednesday.

Abrams, a prominent First Amendment lawyer who represented The New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, said several provisions of the bill violate the First Amendment.

Limits for campaign finances 

"A visitor from a distant planet might say of all of this, 'What are you doing? Why are you limiting speech about elections?' But that's what we're doing, and that's what the legislation that passed yesterday does," Abrams said.

Starr is best known as the former independent counsel who led the Whitewater probe and the investigation into President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He served as solicitor general in the previous Bush administration.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who lead the fight against reform in the Senate, said this latest challenge is not about partisan politics.

"This is not about Republicans battling Democrats or the left versus the right," said McConnell, who put the team together. "This is a mission to preserve fundamental constitutional freedom for all Americans to fully participate in our democracy."

The legal team also includes Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan, First Amendment expert James Bopp and Jan Baran, the former general counsel for the Republican National Committee.

The bill, known as the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate and the Shays-Meehan bill in the House, will go into effect November 6, after the general election -- unless the promised court challenge by its opponents succeeds.

The bill allows for expedited legal review. It will be first heard by a three-judge panel at the federal district court level, and can then be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

In a statement, Bush said fellow Republicans had raised "some legitimate constitutional questions," and he reiterated his belief that "the best reform is full and timely disclosure of campaign contributions."

But he promised to sign the bill, which had been championed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, his chief rival during the 2000 battle for the GOP presidential nomination.

"The reforms passed today, while flawed in some areas, still improve the current system overall," Bush said. "The legislation makes some important progress on the timeliness of disclosure, individual contribution limits and banning soft money from corporations and labor unions."

The bill forbids so-called "soft money" contributions -- unlimited donations to national parties by corporations, unions and individual donors. While parties are supposed to use the money for party-building activities and issue advocacy, critics say much of the cash ends up being used to help specific candidates. That effectively guts existing limits on direct contributions to candidates, known as "hard money," the bill's supporters argued.

While the bill bans soft money contributions to national parties, state and local parties can still accept them. But the size of the donations and how they are used will be regulated.

The bill doubles the limits on direct contributions to individual candidates.

The bill -- which represents the most significant changes to campaign finance laws in a generation -- also prohibits outside advocacy groups from using soft money to pay for issue ads two months before a general election and one month before a primary.

Supports of the ban say these such ads are often nothing more than veiled pitches for or against a particular candidate. But critics maintain such restrictions on advertising violates the free speech rights granted by the Constitution.

The legislation passed after more than seven years of debate, delay and political posturing. It gained momentum this year in the wake of the Enron Corp. scandal, the bankruptcy of the energy giant that was a big contributor to many candidates.

McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, led the fight in the Senate. On the House side, the charge was led by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut. The House passed the bill last month.

While savoring their victory, advocates of campaign finance reform concede the battle is not over. In addition to the promised court fight, they're also watching action in the House, where some Republicans are pushing a bill to amend disclosure requirements for some political action committees.

Some observers fear the move, led by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-California, will lead to a loophole in the pending soft-money restrictions. Thomas and his supporters say he only wants to ease burdensome and duplicative IRS reporting requirements.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.




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