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House Democrats Sign Up To Force Fund-Raising Vote

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 1997; Page A06

A Democratic-led effort to force House action on campaign finance legislation got off to a quick start yesterday but is still well short of the finish line.

By day's end, 168 lawmakers, though only two Republicans, had signed a petition to require votes on a wide array of campaign finance bills, exceeding the expectations of the effort's organizers. But they need 218 signatures representing a majority of all members, and there were conflicting views about whether they would get the additional 50.

Also yesterday, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) sent letters inviting President Clinton and former Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole to appear in public hearings to talk about campaign finance abuses.

Thompson accepted Dole's "generous offer," made Thursday and asked Clinton to "join" Dole in an appearance. "A mutually convenient time and agreed-upon ground rules can be discussed with your staff," Thompson told the president.

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Michael McCurry ridiculed the notion of Clinton testifying. "I can't imagine, given the general performance of that committee in recent days, that any president of the United States would attend and participate in their proceedings," McCurry said.

"It's just become, I think, not an exercise at getting at the truth that will lead people to understand, that will lead to wisdom, that will lead to reform of campaign finance [laws]," McCurry added. "It's become a collective exercise in partisan warfare. Most of it's been comical."

Also sending a letter to Clinton yesterday was House Government Reform and Oversight Chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who said the president should make it a "priority issue" to ask Chinese President Jiang Zemin to "arrange for the prompt return" from China of former Little Rock, Ark., restaurant owner Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie.

Burton, whose committee is conducting an investigation parallel to Thompson's, said in a letter signed by 14 committee Republicans that "up to this point, there has been no serious effort" to track down Trie, a key figure in the probes. Jiang's visit to the United States next week offers "a unique opportunity to address this situation," Burton wrote.

Despite the obstacles facing the House discharge petition, "to get that many [signatures] on the first day was terrific – a good, positive sign . . . that has forced the leadership to take countermeasure that makes it likely that we'll have votes," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) predicted the effort is headed for failure. But among signs that the petition may be having some impact, House Oversight Committee Chairman William M. Thomas (R-Calif.) is planning a hearing on the issue next week, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) met yesterday with Shays and others to discuss prospects for some kind of action, aides said.

Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), who has teamed up with Shays to co-sponsor one of the leading campaign finance proposals, said he thought only a few more signatures would be enough. "As a practical matter, if we have 170 to 180 [signatures], this puts enormous pressure on the Republican leadership to schedule a vote this year," he said.

Backers of the legislation are seeking votes this year but conceded that, with Congress planning to adjourn in two weeks, time constraints may delay action until next year. "We'll take it next year if that's what it takes," said Rep. Scotty Baesler (D-Ky.), who helped organize the petition drive on behalf of conservative "blue dog" Democrats.

Meanwhile, the Senate remained tied in knots over the issue, with Republican leaders failing for the third time this week to break a Democratic filibuster against the big highway reauthorizing bill that is aimed at forcing action on campaign finance.

After the vote, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) served notice that he will make a "fourth – and I want to emphasize – final" attempt to break the filibuster Tuesday. If he is not successful then, he said, he will drop the highway bill for the year and move on to other legislation, which Democrats have also vowed to block in order to force votes early next year on campaign finance.

In comments to reporters, Lott made clear he will blame the Democrats for failure of the highway bill. "The Democrats are going to shut down the highway bill," he said. "If they want to do that while they play their partisan political games, that's tough," he said.

Staff writers Peter Baker and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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