The legislation's demise came even though 52 of the Senate's 100 members voted to proceed on the bill, which would outlaw the type of "soft money" contributions that are at the heart of the 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses.
But the measure, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), needed 60 votes to break a Republican-led filibuster. The action was a replay of an earlier vote in February.
Campaign reform is just one of several major issues that seem destined for the dustbin of a congressional session that is winding down quickly even as lawmakers become increasingly preoccupied with the fate of President Clinton in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.
On Wednesday, the Senate killed a bill that would have ordered the implementation of a national missile defense as soon as technologically feasible.
In doubt is the fate of a bill to revamp the nation's bankruptcy laws. The measure already has been approved by the House but is bogged down in the Senate because Democrats, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), want to amend it to increase the minimum wage--a move strongly opposed by Republicans.
With work still unfinished on several annual appropriation bills that fund the federal government--on top of possible impeachment proceedings against Clinton--the likelihood of congressional action on a number of other initiatives--such as tax cuts--is also uncertain.
Supporters of campaign finance reform had hoped to resuscitate the McCain-Feingold proposal after the House unexpectedly passed a similar measure in August. But no senators changed their minds over the summer recess.
"It was disappointing we didn't pick up any votes--given the vote in the House," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill. "We're certainly going to try again next year. No doubt about it."
Shortly after his latest setback, a subdued McCain announced that he was abandoning his effort for now. Noting that Congress is set to adjourn in a matter of weeks, he said: "I am reluctant, without progress on this issue, to engage in a debate which could divert the Senate from other important issues of the day."
In separate interviews, both McCain and Feingold predicted that, absent reform, the election cycle of 2000 will witness even greater abuses than those in 1996, which remain under investigation by the Justice Department.
"There will be a disgusting display," Feingold said. McCain added: "2000 will be obscene. Absolutely."
Their bill, like the measure the House passed, would ban unregulated and unlimited contributions to the political parties by corporations, unions and individuals. Such "soft money" is not supposed to directly benefit any candidate. But among the many allegations arising from the 1996 campaign is whether a $42-million television advertising campaign funded by the Democratic National Committee and state Democratic parties stepped over the legal line into expressly advocating Clinton's reelection.
McCain and Feingold offered their bill as an amendment to the Interior Department appropriation bill. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), both unabashed foes of a "soft money" ban, persuaded most of their Republican colleagues to vote to block consideration of the measure.
Seven Republicans joined the Senate's 45 Democrats--including Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer--in the losing effort to end the filibuster.
After the vote, McCain said: "One of the problems is the attention of Congress and the country is on the president and [the Lewinsky scandal]. It's hard to wake people up."
Still, he vowed to press the issue again next year. "I will never give up on this fight as long as I'm in this body. Sooner or later, we will prevail," he said.
Feingold said that he intends to keep trying during the next few weeks to introduce the reform bill as an amendment to other legislation. Still, he conceded, the notion that the reform effort is dead for this year is "a rational belief, a reasonable prediction."