A committee cleared the way yesterday for House action next month on several campaign finance proposals, as Republicans brushed aside Democratic complaints that the committee was trying to stack the deck against a bipartisan initiative to curb the flow of special-interest money into campaigns.
The House Administration Committee gave a favorable rating to a bill sponsored by its chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), that would streamline operations of the Federal Election Commission, strengthen rules against foreign contributions and tighten disclosure requirements.
The bipartisan proposal sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) -- which was approved last year by the House over opposition from GOP leaders -- was also cleared for floor action but with an "unfavorable" recommendation.
Two other campaign finance measures, including a narrower version of the Shays-Meehan proposal and another that would repeal contribution limits and substitute tighter disclosure rules, were sent to the floor without any recommendation from the committee.
Procedures for considering any or all of these proposals will be reviewed later this week by the Rules Committee and then by the full House before it leaves this weekend for its summer recess.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) resisted pressure from backers of the Shays-Meehan bill to schedule action earlier in the year. Hastert has agreed to have the House consider the legislation the week after Congress returns in early September.
Thomas's proposal was relatively uncontroversial and appeared likely to have widespread support, prompting Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to question whether it was being offered to squeeze out the Shays-Meehan bill if the House follows procedures similar to those it used last year. Under those rules, each bill was voted on separately and the version with the most number of votes prevailed.
It would be a "cynical, Machiavellian ruse" to use the Thomas proposal to kill the Shays-Meehan measure, Hoyer charged, and if it is being used for this purpose, he said he will urge all Democrats to vote against it.
The test will come when the Rules Committee decides what procedures to propose for voting on the bills, Meehan said in an interview. When Republican leaders used procedural maneuvers last year to try to kill the bill, the tactic backfired and helped build support for the legislation, and the same will be true this year, he said.
Thomas said he was proposing a "purposefully modest" initiative focusing on FEC operations because there was broad bipartisan support for it. Unlike more ambitious proposals that have been kicking around Congress for years, Thomas said, his bill has a real chance of becoming law.
The Shays-Meehan bill would ban unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties, regulate issue ads used late in campaigns to help or hurt specific candidates and strengthen disclosure rules. Last year, after being approved by the House, the Senate version, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), was killed by a Republican filibuster. Senate GOP leaders remain strongly opposed to the measure but have agreed to vote on it in October.