Rep. Constance A. Morella found herself alone among the region's Republican congressional delegation recently in supporting a Democratic bid to force a speedy vote on changes to federal campaign finance laws.

Morella, of Maryland, is one of just six Republicans nationally to sign a Democrat-sponsored petition on May 26 calling for a vote soon on the issue. The bill would ban unregulated "soft" money contributions to political parties and congressional leaders' political action committees. It would limit late-breaking issue-advocacy ads that target candidates. And it would tighten existing fund-raising rules. The measure is sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.).

Morella said her support for a quick vote is no different from the position she took last year when she signed a similar Democratic petition seeking to force action. In that instance, Morella was joined by two Northern Virginia Republicans, Reps. Thomas M. Davis III and Frank R. Wolf. The House went on to approve the legislation, but it later died in a Senate filibuster.

Morella said her two Republican House colleagues may have wanted to stay on the sidelines this year so as not to antagonize GOP leaders.

"Tom [Davis] is in a special situation. He's National Republican Congressional Committee chairman," she explained, an influential fund-raising post that he secured in December with the support of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). "Personally, I don't think he needs to have, maybe, another challenge at this point."

"And Frank Wolf, he chairs the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, and he's worked very hard for transportation. . . . As chairman, he may feel -- well, ask them, ask them!" Morella said.

One could, and get an earful. Davis, who is reaping record-setting sums of money for congressional Republicans under existing rules, complained that "people are trying to make an issue that isn't there."

Davis said he didn't sign the petition this year because House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has promised a vote in the fall.

"The point is we're getting a vote in September," Davis said. "Last time, we weren't going to get a vote on it at all."

"I do not plan on signing the discharge petition because I completely trust the speaker and take him at his word," Wolf said, adding that the difference between a vote in late July and one in September was negligible.

Wolf and Davis do not support the Shays-Meehan bill, but they favor an alternative. They both voted against the legislation last year.

Morella backed last year's unsuccessful bill, along with Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) and area Democrats. She said this year's bill would face a similar fate at the hands of the Senate if a House vote does not take place before September.

Last month, she was one of six Republicans to sign a petition demanding the House take up the matter sooner. The other Republicans were Shays and Reps. Michael N. Castle (Del.), Michael P. Forbes (N.Y.), Greg Ganske (Iowa) and Nancy L. Johnson (Conn.). All told, House members have secured 202 of 218 signatures required to force a vote before an August recess.

"I just felt that to delay would be to [kill] that legislation," Morella said.

It is not the first time that Morella, a seven-term incumbent from Montgomery, has bucked GOP leadership. She was one of five House Republicans to vote against impeaching President Clinton last December.

On campaign finance, Morella signed the petition but skipped a news conference that might have further antagonized GOP leaders. "I didn't need to shout about it," she said, "I just felt that rather calmly, smoothly signing it, that says it all."