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Campaign overhaul headed to president

After years of struggle, the Senate approved landmark legislation Wednesday that would ban the huge, unregulated campaign donations that long have tainted American politics with an air of scandal and corruption.

The Senate voted 60-40 for the most sweeping overhaul of campaign finance law since the post-Watergate reforms of 1974, capping a seven-year struggle by advocates of change and clearing the legislation for President Bush to sign. Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, voted for the bill.

The House of Representatives passed the measure last month.

Though Bush has long opposed the bill, he is expected to sign it in a bow to public concern about the influence of big money in Washington.

The legislation would outlaw the large, unregulated contributions to national parties known as "soft money." Such donations from corporations and labor unions once were used to boost party activities such as getting out the vote, but in recent years parties channeled the money to finance waves of "attack" television ads in candidates' campaigns. The bill also would restrict campaign TV ads by big donors.

The legislation's champions argued that big-money gifts to parties won their donors unfair access to politicians and excessive influence over public policy.

"Every senator knows this system stinks," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "And the American people are right when they distrust the system.

"This bill won't fix every problem. It won't completely end the primacy of money in politics. But the bill is a step in the right direction."

Opponents scoffed that the changes would not curb the power of big donors, but only induce them to find other ways to press their influence. They predicted that money would continue to flow into the system through new channels.

"One thing we know about politics," said a leading opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "If mischief is possible, mischief will occur."

Foes vowed to continue the fight in court. They say that several terms of the legislation restrict free speech in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment. McConnell and others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, plan to challenge the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Critics also say the restrictions on money and TV ads would make it harder for challengers to topple incumbents.

They argue that the new law might have the unintended consequence of weakening the two major political parties and strengthening special interest groups, which could become the new favored vehicles for big donors to spread their political views.

Foes of the measure had blocked the bill since its debut in 1995, but subsequent scandals involving big donors _ such as President Bill Clinton's opening of the Lincoln Bedroom to favored contributors _ kept the issue alive. Recent revelations that bankrupt energy giant Enron donated generously to both parties helped drive lawmakers this year to vote for change, if only to avoid political attack.

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