Gains in House
By Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin
Reform advocates hailed the agreement as a significant breakthrough in the long struggle over legislation to curb fund-raising abuses but acknowledged it is unclear what -- if any -- legislation will be approved.
"This is a great day for democracy . . . for both the Republican and Democratic parties and for Congress," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), co-sponsor with Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) of a proposal to ban "soft money" donations to political parties and impose some controls on attack ads by outside groups. But passage is "an open question that depends in large measure on how the public responds," Shays added. The Senate early this year killed its version of reform.
The dramatic turnabout by Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and other House GOP leaders came as the legislation's advocates nudged toward the 218 signatures required for a "discharge petition" to force votes when the leadership refuses to act.
By yesterday morning, 204 House members -- including 12 Republicans -- had signed. If all the remaining Democrats had signed, they would have put the effort over the top and effectively taken control of the debate -- an outcome apparently deemed intolerable by GOP leaders.
The signature campaign gathered momentum after Republican leaders last month enraged many members with a parliamentary maneuver to block action on the Shays-Meehan bill.
Their reversal became evident during a closed-door GOP caucus that opened with angry denunciations of the 12 Republican petition signers, moved toward a friendlier dialogue and ended with a huddle between Gingrich and the rebels that resulted in agreement on an "open" process for voting on the issue by the end of May.
In return for scheduling votes, several sources said, Gingrich asked enough Republicans to take their names off the petition to keep it from succeeding, and at least five, including Shays, did so.
"I think the leadership realizes they made a monumental error," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) after the caucus.
The rebels' use of a discharge petition to force action by Republican leaders was rich in irony.
Gingrich and others had brandished discharge petitions like swords against recalcitrant Democratic leaders before their party took control in 1995. While they rarely succeeded in forcing votes, they used the petitions -- and Democratic leaders' disdain for them -- to popularize GOP issues and portray the Democrats as mean-spirited autocrats.
Now the Democrats and Republican dissidents have turned the tables, although Gingrich described the agreement as a vindication of a 1995 Republican move to force disclosure of petition signatures, saying it "ensures that members can express their will on the scheduling of legislation."
The Republican rebels congratulated Gingrich on his change of heart, while Democrats claimed victory. "Campaign finance reform has survived the best attempts of the Republican leadership to drive a stake through its heart," said Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "But make no mistake: This was a retreat, not a conversion."
President Clinton hailed the change as "great news" but cautioned that any bill needs bipartisan support.
Under the agreement, the House will take up a bipartisan bill sponsored by about 70 House freshmen that includes curbs on soft money and issue ads but does not go as far as the Shays-Meehan measure. But it will be considered under an "open rule," allowing substitutes and amendments, including Shays-Meehan and possibly others.
The outlook remained murky, however. Shays indicated he may not get all he wants but said he will hold out for a total ban on soft money as well as curbs on attack ads.
Reform advocates said the process appears acceptable but remained vigilant in light of the leadership's earlier tactics. "We approach today's developments with an attitude of 'trust but verify,' " said a statement by conservative Democratic "Blue Dogs" who initiated the discharge petition, borrowing a phrase used by President Ronald Reagan in reference to arms negotiations with the former Soviet Union. The Blue Dogs, led by Reps. Scotty Baesler (Ky.), Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) and Jim Turner (Tex.), and others said they will revive the discharge petition if the process breaks down.
Even if the House passes Shays-Meehan, the Senate GOP leadership has made it clear it will resist reconsideration of a similar bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) that died in a filibuster.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company