McConnell claims "victory", McCain "respects" Court decision
One of the more interesting senatorial rivalries of the last decade was on full display today in a key Supreme Court ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts deciding for a 5-4 majority that restrictions on corporate- and labor-financed ads attacking candidates by name was unconstitutional.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a longtime opponent of restrictions on campaign spending, trumpeted the ruling as a huge victory for free speech advocates. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-author of the bill at the center of the ruling, claimed symbolic victory because the most critical portion of the legislation -- banning House members, senators and their respective party campaign committees from raising these unlimited donations - was still intact.
"Americans have a constitutionally protected right to hold their elected representatives accountable and, I hope, with this important decision, we can begin to undo the stranglehold that campaign finance legislation has placed on political debate," McConnell said in a statement issued less than an hour after the ruling hit.
"While I respect their decision in this matter, it is regrettable that a split Supreme Court has carved out a narrow exception by which some corporate and labor expenditures can be used to target a federal candidate in the days and weeks before an election," McCain said in a statement issued by his presidential campaingn.
McConnell and McCain have been rivals dating back to at least the 1997 and 1998 effort to pass a federal settlement to the massive number of tobacco-related lawsuits, an effort led by McCai, who was then chairman of the Commerce committee. McConnell, whose Kentucky tobacco interests opposed the legislation, played the key role in blocking the bill.
And throughout the late 1990s McConnell, who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee for four years, blocked McCain's efforts to outlaw unlimited, six- and seven-figure checks from corporations, unions and other special interests. McCain and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) eventually succeeded in getting that bill signed into law, taking effect after the 2002 elections.
But McConnell, McCain and Senate Democrats struck a deal allowing them to receive pro bono legal help in the court fights to follow. The Bluegrass State senator filed a lawsuit arguing for a complete repeal of the law, which led to the Supreme Court upholding most of the provisions. While an anti-abortion group from Wisconsin was the lead plaintiff in today's ruling, McConnell weighed in with an amicus brief with the Supreme Court saying "grassroots lobbying ads" should not be restricted just before an election - "when constituents are most receptive to political ads" - regardless of who finances them.
The McConnell-McCain battle from the tobacco fight also spilled into the campaign finance dispute. The Arizonan filed motions during the legal fight over McCain-Feingold accusing McConnell of arguing behind closed doors in the late 1990s that big tobacco companies had given huge sums to the NRSC and other GOP senators, urging leniency to the industry because of those large donations.
As the Federal Election Commission was implementing the new law in 2003, a British scholar submitted his thesis - about the American campaign finance system - to the FEC for consideration during the public comment period. It included sometimes vicious on-the-record quotes from legal counsels aligned with McConnell accusing McCain's lawyer, Trevor Potter, of "going native" when he became an FEC commissioner in the 1990s because he favored restrictions on campaign finances.
In recent years McCain and McConnell have gotten along fine, and this year McCain has been a loyal soldier to his party's leadership and the White House, working feverishly for President Bush on the two most controversial issues of the day: the Iraq war and immigration reform.
Both men, if asked, deflect any hint of animosity toward each other. Still, as McCain continues ahead with his campaign for the GOP nomination, he was dealt another small defeat today.
And if later this year, just before the Iowa caucuses, McCain gets hit with some attack ads financed by corporate chieftains opposed to his campaign, he'll have McConnell to thank for those ads.
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