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House Rejects GOP Campaign Finance Bill (Washington Post, March 31)

Campaign Finance Bill Dies in Senate (Washington Post, Feb. 27)

Drive May Be Last Hope for Campaign Reform

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 1998; Page A01

Congressional advocates of campaign finance reform have long been pegging their hopes for action on a tawdry election scandal and a high-profile investigation into it. Over the last couple of years, they got their scandal and their investigation. But they haven't gotten their bill.

Late Monday, after a furious fight over Republican leaders' manipulation of rules to thwart a vote on the leading bill to overhaul fund-raising laws, the House joined the Senate in blocking action on the issue, probably for the rest of the year.

Trying to capitalize on outrage over the leadership's tactics, organizers of a petition drive to force a vote on the House bill managed to add two names yesterday but still lagged more than two dozen votes behind the required 218.

The petition campaign is probably the only hope for producing a bill this year, and supporters concede it will be a tough fight unless members feel more pressure from home during an upcoming three-week recess than they have felt so far.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-sponsor of campaign finance legislation in the Senate, and his allies have been predicting for some time that the system would produce scandal and that the scandal would ignite public pressure for change. But despite the almost daily drumbeat of disclosures about fund-raising excesses from the 1996 presidential election, many lawmakers found there has been little impact on a public that was already profoundly jaded about the practice of politics and the capacity of political institutions such as Congress to reform themselves.

Moreover, many members of Congress remained reluctant to tamper with the system that keeps on electing them, and Republican leaders were loath to give up any source of money that gives them a fund-raising advantage over the Democrats.

"There's not enough grass-roots anger about the issue," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). She participated in the Senate's probe into 1996 campaign abuses and helped lead the fight for legislation to curb practices that led to the scandal, including unregulated "soft money" donations to parties and issue-advertising that targets candidates just before elections.

"In many ways, the silence bespeaks some very troubling cynicism about the whole process. People have given up on the idea it can be reformed. They've given up on us," Collins added.

The assessment from across the aisle is both different and similar.

"The investigation and hearings were so political it just made the public cynical, and people are also cynical about the ability of the institution to change itself," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), co-sponsor of a bipartisan House campaign finance bill that would also ban soft money and regulate attack ads from outside groups.

Moreover, Meehan said, Federal Election Commission reports show that Republicans raised $416 million in soft money last year, compared with $221 million for the Democrats. "Looking at these numbers, it's no wonder the Republicans refused to call up the only bill that could have passed because it would have put an end to the soft money system," he argued.

The bill's backers are encouraged by two developments: It won support from a majority of senators earlier this year -- even though it fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a GOP-led filibuster -- and it had enough backing in the House to cause GOP leaders to resort to unusual parliamentary tactics to block it.

Meehan, Collins and others argue that the only slight chance to overcome the roadblocks is a "discharge" petition that would force the legislation to a vote. The drive, begun six months ago by conservative Democrats, had produced 188 signatures as of Monday night, including 182 Democrats and 6 Republicans. As of late yesterday, two more Democrats -- Dale E. Kildee (Mich.) and Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) -- added their names.

The drive's organizers hope to get at least 200 signatures by the start of the recess Thursday, aiming first at the nearly 20 Democratic holdouts in order to put pressure on Republicans, numbering about 30, who have urged action on campaign finance but not signed the petition.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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