By Helen Dewar
The House yesterday gave initial approval to the most far-reaching of several campaign finance proposals due to come before it this week, putting the measure on track for final passage by the House, and an uphill fight in the Senate.
After surviving one attack after another in recent months from Republican leaders, the bill was approved, 237 to 186, with 51 Republicans joining all but 11 Democrats in supporting the measure.
Among the other proposals that are likely to come to a vote this week, only one -- a more narrow bill sponsored by House freshmen -- is given a chance of gathering more support. The bill that gets the most votes will prevail.
The deep divisions that have stalled the legislation for more than a decade were on parade in the sharp debate that proceeded the vote.
This is "truly an historic opportunity to restore integrity to our political process," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).
"This is not reform. This is not good government. This is political disarmament," said Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
After the vote, Meehan said he saw no chance that any other bill would gain more votes than the Shays-Meehan measure, although Shays appeared more cautious.
The Shays-Meehan bill would ban unlimited, unregulated "soft money" donations to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, effectively ending the practice that led to widely criticized fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign. In the final days of a campaign, it would also impose restrictions, including contribution limits and disclosure requirements, on issue advocacy advertising. Such ads fall just short of advocating election or defeat of a particular candidate and escape regulation under current law. The 1996 campaign was awash in issue-advocacy ads, and they are running again this year.
Critics say these provisions would undermine political parties, threaten First Amendment speech protections and create new loopholes for abuses.
Washington area Reps. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) voted for the bill, while Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) and Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) voted against it.
The Shays-Meehan measure still faces long odds. In the Senate similar legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) won a majority but fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to break a Republican filibuster.
Shays and Meehan have argued that House passage of their bill by a solid majority would put enormous pressure on the Senate to reverse itself and approve the legislation. "If we send the Senate a bill by a decent [majority], I think they will reconsider," said Shays.
But both Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has been leading the fight against such legislation for years, have said they regard the issue as dead for the year and will block any efforts to revive it. Without any chance for 60 votes, bringing it up would be a "waste of time," said Lott spokesman John Czwartacki.
While Senate Democrats are certain to try to force more votes on the issue in hopes of swaying enough Republicans to reach the 60-vote mark, anything short of Senate approval of the House version without change would send the legislation to a House-Senate conference, presenting more opportunities for obstruction. Democrats have not yet decided whether they would push for their own bill or go with the House version, a leadership aide said.
McCain, in a statement from Arizona, said he thought House approval of Shays-Meehan "might change some votes in the Senate" and produce the super-majority needed to enact the measure, which President Clinton has said he would sign. But, McCain added, "at the moment, we are still well short of the votes needed . . . and the brief time remaining in this session makes another attempt at passing a Senate bill an exceedingly difficult task at best."
Before the bill can reach the Senate, it faces more obstacles in the House.
Chief among them is the alternative proposed by a bipartisan group of freshmen that could garner more votes than the Shays-Meehan measure if the GOP leadership and other foes of the legislation swing behind it. Under complex rules for the debate, the bill that gets the most votes wins.
The legislation has already set something of a record for survival against the odds, leading its advocates to believe that last night's vote will build public pressure for action by the 106th Congress if it is blocked by the 105th Congress.
As reformers gathered signatures on a petition to force action earlier this year, the House Republican leadership responded first by delay and then by scheduling other campaign finance proposals for votes, conspicuously excluding the Shays-Meehan plan. When those tactics backfired and helped build support for the Shays-Meehan proposal, GOP leaders came up with a complicated process that allowed consideration of 11 separate plans and more than 250 amendments.
While some of the plans and many of the amendments faded away, the Shays-Meehan forces had to swallow some amendments they did not want but succeeded in fighting off near 20 "killer" amendments that would have gutted the measure or fractured the fragile coalition that backed their bill.
Among the lethal amendments were those that would have restricted political activity by labor unions, weakened the proposed restrictions on pre-election issue advertising, and repealed or modified key provisions of the 1993 "motor-voter" registration law aimed at making it easier for people to register and vote.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company