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Campaign Finance Reform's Fortunes Rise, Fall

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 1997; Page A08

The Senate sank deeper yesterday into its quagmire over campaign finance legislation, while the bill's supporters in the House prepared to launch an effort today to revive the issue and force votes on it before Congress adjourns next month.

At the end of a day of deadlock on the floor and intense maneuvering in the cloakrooms, the Senate remained paralyzed, with Democrats blocking action on a huge highway-building bill — and nearly everything else on the calender for the rest of the year — until Republicans agree to schedule action on campaign finance early next year.

Dashing Republican hopes that Democratic solidarity was crumbling, the Democrats pulled together and, with the help of seven Republicans, trounced an effort by Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to force action on the highway bill. The vote left Lott 12 votes short of the 60 required to win.

The trench-warfare strategy began when Republicans blocked a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) earlier this month. Now the strategy threatens not only the highway bill but also President Clinton's proposal for "fast-track" trade negotiating authority and a long list of other bills that Lott has been dangling before the Senate. Both parties are preparing to blame each other for failure of these measures.

In the House, Democrats will begin today to gather signatures on a "discharge petition," which, if signed by a majority of House members, would force votes on seven separate campaign finance proposals, including one similar to the McCain-Feingold bill in the Senate.

It is far from clear that the petition's organizers can get the necessary 218 signatures or, if they are successful, that they can produce a majority of votes for any of the campaign finance plans.

"Forcing a fair vote in the House before the end of the year is going to be very tough but it's not impossible," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), who, with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), is sponsoring the proposal that most closely resembles the stymied Senate bill. The same goes for prospects of passing any of the bills, Meehan added. "We're just fighting for a fair fight."

House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who said last month he expected a campaign finance debate but has not moved since then to schedule one, seemed unruffled at prospects for the discharge petition. It is "not something that is weighing heavily on my mind," he said Tuesday.

The discharge petition drive comes on top of other efforts to force campaign finance votes, including a written appeal from 30 Republicans, threats by more than 100 Democrats to delay adjournment until votes are allowed and repeated procedural moves to force votes on the House floor.

The drive was organized by Reps. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), Jim Turner (D-Tex.) and other conservative Democrats known as "blue dogs" and has the backing of Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who has written all Democrats urging that they sign the petition.

Democrats control 206 House seats, and independent Rep. Bernard Sanders (Vt.) usually votes with them, leaving only 11 signatures to be provided by Republicans to reach 218 if all Democrats sign on.

But some Democrats — a dozen so far, according to some sources — may not support the petition because of long-standing opposition to discharge petitions dating back to the days when their party ran the House.

A strong show of Democratic unity is critical because Republican reform advocates are demanding it as a prerequisite for their signatures. "If we can get 200 Democratic signatures — or at least close to it, like 180 — it will send a message to those Republicans who are for reform to sign on," Meehan said.

A Democratic aide said an informal nose-count showed 165 to 170 Democrats are prepared to sign up so far.

Some others said they believed a strong early showing might convince the House GOP leadership to act on its own to schedule votes to avoid the embarrassment of getting rolled.

The calendar presents a problem, however. Under complex procedures governing discharge petitions, the most likely day for a vote would be the Monday after Congress' targeted adjournment date of Nov. 7. But Democrats said Republican leaders would be under enormous pressure to schedule an earlier vote or keep Congress in session for another week if a majority of the House demanded votes on campaign finance.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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