Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 1998; Page A04
The House last night emphatically rejected the Republican leadership's campaign finance bill as angry Democratic and GOP critics decried the voting process as a "fraud" and "sham" that barred consideration of their bipartisan plan to curb fund-raising abuses.
By a vote of 74 to 337, the House scuttled the most comprehensive of four bills brought up by the leadership under procedures that barred amendments and required a two-thirds "supermajority" for passage, virtually guaranteeing defeat of all but the least controversial proposals.
Even Republicans voted overwhelmingly against the bill, despite last-minute efforts by GOP leaders to broaden the measure to pick up support. It was opposed by all 196 Democrats and 140 of 214 Republicans who voted on the measure, including members of the GOP leadership.
A more widely supported proposal to ban political contributions from noncitizens, singled out from the broader bill for a separate vote, was approved, 369 to 43. Another such proposal aimed at strengthening disclosure requirements was passed, 405 to 6. A more controversial proposal to restrict campaign spending by labor unions was rejected, 166 to 246.
The unusual voting strategy was employed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other GOP leaders after they discovered last week that the bipartisan bill might pass if normal voting procedures were followed, prompting bitter complaints from its chief backers.
Quoting Woody Allen in the movie "Bananas," Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) described the process as "a travesty of a mockery of a sham." "An unbelievable outrage," added Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), co-sponsor with Meehan of the House version of the bill that stalled earlier this year in the Senate.
As a last resort, Shays, Meehan and others are trying to gather support for a petition to force a vote on their measure. They are about 30 votes short of the required 218 signatures but said yesterday that the leadership strategy will backfire and help garner the necessary signers.
The leadership bill proposed that unions be required to get written permission from members before their dues can be used for political purposes. It sought to ban unregulated, so-called "soft money" donations to national parties. Critics argued that a last-minute change to attract support by covering state parties as well did not go far enough to keep the state parties from running issue ads on behalf of federal candidates. The leadership bill called for stronger disclosure requirements, higher contribution limits, a ban on contributions from noncitizens and steps to encourage citizenship verification procedures.
The Shays-Meehan bill would ban soft money and contributions to state as well as national political parties, and restrict issue advertising that targets specific candidates late in a campaign. It also would tighten disclosure rules and ban donations from noncitizens, but did not include the union dues provision, which was anathema to its Democratic supporters.
From the start, House Republican leaders merely wanted to put the issue of campaign finance reform to rest as quietly as possible. Instead, their attempts to do so have succeeded far more than the painstaking efforts of the legislation's sponsors in pumping new drama into the debate.
Since Republicans trapped the Senate version of the bipartisan legislation in a filibuster earlier this year, there was never much, if any, chance that a major campaign finance bill would become law this year.
But the tactics of GOP leaders which lawmakers say were aimed at fulfilling promises to address the issue without risking passage of legislation they do not want have triggered a ferocious response from both Republican and Democratic sponsors, drawing renewed attention to the issue and assuring that it will not go away quietly.
"Suddenly it's surfaced as a hot-button issue," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.).
First the leaders drafted an alternative of their own but postponed action on it last Thursday when it appeared they would lose procedural votes and open the way for passage of the bill they oppose. A day later, they reversed course and scheduled votes for this week on their bills only, employing a procedure known as "suspension," normally reserved for noncontroversial bills, that bars amendments, limits debate time and requires a two-thirds vote for passage.
The House Republican leadership's commitment to tackle the issue dates to June 1995, when Gingrich shook hands with President Clinton in a mutual pledge to create a blue-ribbon panel on campaign finance.
After two years of no action, pressure last year mounted on Gingrich from within his party to deliver on his promise. Reform advocates began gathering signatures on a petition to force a vote. In November, Gingrich promised a vote by the end of March and said he anticipated a "very fair, bipartisan process of voting."
As it turned out, this meant votes only on the leadership bill, drafted and sponsored by House Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).
But when the GOP leadership discovered last week it probably would not prevail on critical procedural votes and might end up with passage of Shays-Meehan instead, Gingrich and other GOP leaders decided to postpone votes until April or May.
Gingrich met Thursday with Shays, Boehlert and other Republican reform advocates to assuage their concerns. According to participants, Gingrich made it clear he lacked the votes to pass the leadership's bill and asked for patience.
"He's trying to avoid a knock-down, drag-out battle on the floor, to his credit," Boehlert said. But "when you're trying to be pleasing everybody, sometimes you end up pleasing nobody."
By Friday Thomas, angered by Shays's aggressive tactics, went to the leadership to urge the alternative strategy of holding immediate votes under suspension. GOP leaders went along with Thomas, announcing the decision Friday afternoon after many members had left for the weekend., Shays and his Democratic allies came to the floor to attack the decision. Yesterday they resumed their drumbeat before television cameras.
© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press