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GOP House Moderates Push 'Soft Money' Plan

By Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 1999; Page A6

House Republican advocates of tighter campaign finance rules yesterday urged Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to speed action on the measure but came away with no promises, meaning they may have to choose soon between sticking with their leadership or joining Democrats in trying to force an early vote.

The lawmakers said Hastert told them he planned to schedule the bill for September, and they said that was too late to have any meaningful chance for success this year.

Hastert's only concession was to agree to take "under advisement" their proposal to advance the debate to late spring or early summer and to respond to their request in a "timely fashion," House members said after the meeting. The 45-minute session was attended by two dozen members, mostly moderates.

The bill they are backing, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), would ban unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties, regulate late-breaking issue ads that promote specific candidates and strengthen disclosure requirements.

Last year the House passed the Shays-Meehan bill by a wide margin during the summer, only to see it killed in the Senate by a late-session Republican filibuster. The members argue that this will happen again this year if the House does not act by June or July. But members quoted Hastert as saying other business had more urgent priority and that a soft money ban could mean "unilateral disarmament" for Republicans in light of labor unions' heavy support of Democrats.

Asked what they will do if Hastert does not budge, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.) said, "Then we have a large problem." Shays seemed to convey the same message as he left a half-hour later, apparently after another meeting with Hastert or his staff, and uncharacteristically declined to comment. "I need time to think," he said.

Until now, Republicans have declined to sign a Democratic-sponsored "discharge" petition to bypass the House leadership and force a prompt vote on the measure, even though 12 of them, including Shays, signed a similar petition last year. For members of the majority party, signing a discharge petition can be interpreted as an affront to the leadership, a step the Republicans are reluctant to take so early in Hastert's tenure.

But the petition was mentioned in the meeting, with implications that the members might sign if Hastert stuck to his September schedule. So far 191 Democrats have signed, 27 short of the 218 needed to force votes. Thirty-one Republicans have co-sponsored the Shays-Meehan bill this year, more than enough to approve a discharge petition.

Rep. Constance A. Morella (Md.), one of three Washington area Republicans who signed the discharge petition last year, said Republicans would not sign the new petition until they hear back from Hastert. The other two local Republicans, Virginia Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf, favor an alternative to the Shays-Meehan bill and said yesterday they do not intend to sign the petition; they said they are satisfied with Hastert's assurances of action by this fall.

In a statement after the meeting, Meehan said a delay until September is "simply unacceptable" and charged that Hastert has apparently abandoned bipartisanship on key issues.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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