WASHINGTON -- The Senate took its first step toward rewriting campaign spending rules, nearing approval of a proposal to help candidates compete against rich, self-financing opponents.
Senators said Tuesday that in overnight negotiations they had worked out a complex three-stage formula for raising and eliminating the current $1,000 cap on contributions individuals can make to candidates facing wealthy foes.
"We have come down to two categories of candidates in America, the M&M categories -- the multimillionaires and the mere mortals," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sponsor of the measure with Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
The proposal, expected to be approved later Tuesday, was offered as an amendment to campaign finance legislation by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., that would bring about the most significant changes in spending laws in a quarter-century.
The Senate on Monday began two weeks of debate on McCain-Feingold, which would ban unregulated "soft-money" donations from corporations, unions and individuals to political parties.
The amendment would increase contribution limits according to a formula based on a state's population, with limits rising more quickly in less-populated states. When personal spending by a wealthy candidate reaches the first level, the contribution cap rises to $3,000. The cap goes up to $6,000 at the second level and is eliminated at the third level.
On Monday night the Senate defeated, by 51-48, a broader proposal offered by Domenici, but only after Democrats, intent on showing unity in their support for McCain-Feingold, persuaded three of their members to change their votes and oppose Domenici.
The bill's centerpiece is the ban on soft money, which nearly doubled from the 1996 election to $487 million in the 2000 election cycle.
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