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Special Event

Senate Debate Over Campaign Finance Reform Begins

Aired March 19, 2001 - 2:05 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And now more about campaign finance reform: It's opening day in the Senate for arguments on all sides.

Jeanne Meserve is keeping watch, in Washington.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: Lou, John McCain took his crusade for campaign finance reform to the Senate floor today, where it will be pushed and pulled and tugged for two weeks, perhaps into some sort of shape that this Senate will actually pass, perhaps into a shape that President Bush will actually sign. John McCain was the first to take the floor.

But right now, Mitch McConnell, a power player in the Senate and a sworn opponent of campaign finance reform is speaking. Let's listen in to what he says.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: ... legislated out of existence through our votes here in this chamber. It irritates us, but there are a lot of things that you have to endure in public life, from media criticism to outside issue groups that irritate us. But just because it irritates us doesn't mean there's any constitutional basis for eliminating it.

In fact, the courts over times since Buckley, over 20 times since Buckley, have struck down various efforts by state and local governments to hamper, inhibit, make it more difficult for outside groups to criticize us in proximity to an election. So the chances of that being upheld, Mr. President, are slim and none.

In 1999, McCain-Feingold was pealed back even further, and the last vote we had on this issue provided only two features: a party soft money ban and a, what we would have to charitably call, a bogus Beck provision, which actually eviscerates current worker protections rather than codify them as the McCain-Feingold subtitle purports.

Now, so the last time we had a vote on this issue in the Senate, a cloture vote, was on a party soft-money ban only with a bogus Beck provision.

What we have before us now is a beefed-up McCain-Feingold, again with the party soft-money ban plus various efforts to restrict the voices of outside groups. And one of the issues we're going to be dealing with here in the course of the debate is that so-called nonseverability clause. It's in the president's statement of principles. Why is it in there?

It's in there because we have an obligation not to pass laws that are clearly unconstitutional. And I hear that some of the proponents of this year's version of McCain-Feingold oppose the nonseverability clause, and I really find that mystifying.

If they're so confident that the bill is constitutional, what is wrong with a nonseverability clause to guarantee that the bill either rises or falls together?

I mean, we -- they should have had a nonseverability clause back in 1974. What happened then was legislation passed that had spending limits for campaigns and contribution limits for individuals. Well, the spending limits got struck down, the contribution limits got upheld, were not indexed. And we have today a situation in which we are left with the $1,000 limit set at a time when a Mustang cost $2,700 and candidates, particularly in big states, who are not fortunate to be wealthy have to spend -- well, there's not enough time.

There's not enough time between -- if you're running for the Senate in California and you don't have the advantage of being already well-known or extraordinarily rich, two years is not long enough to pool together enough resources at $1,000 a contributor to be competitive.

One of the single-biggest problems we have is the failure to index the hard-money contribution limit back in the '70s.

Why do you think parties are more relying on soft money? Because there isn't enough hard money. Nobody capped the cost of media at a 1974 level. Nobody. And I hear we may have an amendment to deal with the question of availability of media, and I think that's a good idea and I look forward to taking a look at what the details of it are.

But we ought to be dealing with the real problems here. And the real problem is not that there's too much money in politics. There's too little money in politics, particularly hard money, which is all limited and disclosed, directly given to parties and candidates to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.

And yet, nobody on the so-called "reform side" is trying to deal with the single-biggest problem that we have...

MESERVE: And that is Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky making the case that the problem isn't too much money in politics, it is too little. He is an opponent of McCain-Feingold and does not want to see campaign finance reform.

One word of explanation: He talked about the nonseverability clause. What this is, is some people in the Senate say that if one aspect of anything that's passed and signed into law is struck down as unconstitutional, then the entire law should be thrown out. Just one point of contention in the U.S. Senate. There are many on this issue. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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