By Helen Dewar
Under a procedure approved by the Rules Committee after a lengthy hearing, the House will begin debate today on a dozen plans, including alternative proposals to ban or sharply curtail the unregulated "soft money" donations to political parties at the heart of fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign.
No votes are anticipated until after Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess, and still to be determined by the committee is the problem of how to deal with an extraordinary load of amendments, including 586 that have been filed so far.
Never in the history of the Rules Committee has it faced such a formidable load of amendments, said committee Chairman Gerald B.H. Solomon (R-N.Y.), who promised to prune the list to manageable proportions over the recess. He dismissed some lawmakers' complaints that the process could take all summer. "It could but it won't," he said. Without interruption, the bill could be wound up in four days, he added.
Only a couple of months ago, House Republican leaders resorted to extraordinary means to block votes on the leading proposals, including a total soft-money ban proposed by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and a somewhat less stringent alternative proposed by a bipartisan group of freshmen. But their tactics created an uproar, and, in order to keep from losing control of the House on the issue, GOP leaders did a sudden about-face and opted for a wide-open process providing for votes on a multitude of plans and even more numerous amendments to them.
As a result, the reform groups, once united in opposition to the leaders' tactics, are competing against each other, raising the possibility that none of the plans would get enough votes for passage -- or that all of them would get bogged down in a struggle over amendments.
Now it was Democratic leaders, as well as their Republican counterparts, who were getting caught in the squeeze. Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has been pushing for the Shays-Meehan bill, raised some hackles at a Democratic caucus Tuesday night when, according to several observers, he acknowledged without apparent disapproval that some Democrats would also support the freshmen's bill.
At yesterday's hearing, several lawmakers expressed concern that the debate might be stretched out over weeks, with interruptions for other business, making it little more than "filler" to plug into open spaces in the schedule. Several also objected to allowing amendments to each of the plans as they come up for votes, instead of holding them in reserve for action on the final version, saying this could lead to lethal delays. "We'll just go through a lot of motion and not [get] any action," said Rep. Joe Moakley (Mass.), the committee's ranking Democrat.
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