By Helen Dewar
The House yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation to stop the flow of unregulated "soft money" to political parties and crack down on attack ads by special interest groups, putting new pressure on hostile Senate Republicans to approve the plan.
The 252 to 179 vote, which included the approval of 61 Republicans, came in defiance of Republican leaders who had tried a series of parliamentary maneuvers to derail the bill during a grueling four-month struggle.
The vote on the bill, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), was a major victory for pro-reform forces who have been fighting without success to overhaul loophole-ridden campaign finance laws that have hardly been touched since post-Watergate reforms were enacted more than 20 years ago.
But the legislation is not likely to go any farther before the 105th Congress adjourns in early October, according to many senators.
The votes reflected the extraordinary resilience of the campaign reform issue that had to overcome not only the opposition from Republican leaders -- who pelted the bill with a seemingly endless array of "poison pill" amendments intended to make it unpalatable -- but desultory interest from voters and the short shelf life of some other big causes on Capitol Hill, such as anti-smoking legislation. Campaign finance overhaul is proving hard to pass but impossible to kill.
"You only get an opportunity once in a generation to really make a difference on a major issue. . . . This is a golden opportunity we have," said Meehan after the vote.
"The task is now clear: Eight senators stand between America and reform," Shays said. He was referring to the number of Republican senators who would have to switch sides and vote to end a GOP-led filibuster against a similar Senate bill in order for the legislation to be enacted and signed into law.
President Clinton called the vote a "heartening sign for the health of our democracy" and called on the Senate to pass the bill.
Under unusual rules set for the House debate, any number of plans could be offered and the one with the most votes would win. The Shays-Meehan bill won 237 votes in its trial run on Monday. Its passage was ensured yesterday when the House emphatically rejected the bill's only real competitor, a less stringent alternative sponsored by freshmen of both parties. The freshman bill received only 147 votes.
Faced with the inevitability of defeat, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other GOP leaders retired from the field, although Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) had earlier tried to muster support for the freshman bill.
As the Shays-Meehan bill neared final passage, Democrats -- joined by Shays and a handful of other Republicans -- began ritual clapping until the decisive vote was cast and then erupted in wild applause and cheering. Lawmakers shook hands, patted each other's backs and hugged.
The legislation passed with the support of 190 Democrats, 61 Republicans and an independent. It was opposed by 164 Republicans and 15 Democrats. Among Washington area members, only Reps. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) voted against the bill.
While there were similarities between the two leading bills, Shays-Meehan was tougher in two key areas: It would bar state as well as national parties from raising or spending unregulated "soft money" donated by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, while the freshman bill would restrict only national parties. It would regulate late-breaking issue advertising targeted at specific candidates, while the freshman bill only prescribed new disclosure rules for spending on the ads.
A bill similar to Shays-Meehan, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), won a narrow majority in February but garnered only 52 of the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster against it.
Reform advocates argued that the House action will force Senate GOP foes of the measure to reconsider, especially those who are up for reelection this year, and Democrats are virtually certain to try to force votes on the issue next month. But both Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has led the fight against the measure, have repeatedly vowed to keep the issue from being revived in a serious way in the Senate this year.
McCain said earlier this week that he thought House approval "might change some votes" in the Senate but that "we are still well short" of 60 votes and running out of time.
More likely than action this year is a strong boost for passage of legislation next year in order to put new rules in place for the 2000 presidential elections, according to many supporters of the bill.
The big losers in yesterday's vote were House Republican leaders, who came to power under a reform banner but found themselves defending a system that many of their own members described as corrupt. While the leaders tried to protect the GOP's formidable fund-raising advantage by opposing restrictions on its most lucrative sources of cash, many lawmakers clearly feared political fallout in November from appearing to oppose reform, even though the issue barely registers in public opinion polls.
The leaders themselves stoked these fires by refusing earlier in the year even to allow consideration of the Shays-Meehan bill, which angered many members, raised the issue's profile and pumped new life into the battle. Critics argued that Shays-Meehan would not have gotten as many votes if members had not been convinced that the Senate would block it. But the margin underscored the deep divisions within the GOP on the issue, especially between leaders and rank-and-file members.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company