Gingrich throws cold water on Senate election reforms Clinton-backed bill is doomed in House, speaker predicts

September 26, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted yesterday that a sweeping campaign finance plan that he opposes and President Clinton supports would be dealt a fatal blow in the House.

"It won't pass the House," Gingrich said of the leading campaign reform measure, offered by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. The speaker did confirm that the House would take up the bill but said the timing is uncertain.

Gingrich, who would remove all limits on campaign contributions, had not publicly forecast the measure's defeat before, according to an aide. His remarks are a further sign of the difficult road the legislation faces, even if supporters somehow muster enough Republican votes to win Senate approval.

McCain, the most prominent advocate of overhauling the way elections are financed, chose to accentuate the positive in Gingrich's remarks, praising the speaker's decision to allow the issue to come to the House floor.

He called it "significant progress" and a sign that public pressure is building for action by Congress.

But prospects for reform remain uncertain at best. McCain himself acknowledged this week that his overhaul plan was only at "step two, and it's a 10-step process."

And one experienced campaign finance analyst went much further. He said recent claims of momentum on the issue are only an illusion.

"I see rhetoric," said Kent Cooper of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. "I see inside-the-Beltway hype. But I don't see members shifting their votes."

Unless Congress is forced to vote on the issue this fall, Cooper added, the chances for any changes are "virtually zilch" because the issue will slip into 1998, an election year.

The decision by Republican leaders in Congress to take up election reform came after weeks of Senate hearings into 1996 campaign finance abuses and the recent announcement that both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore face the prospect of an independent counsel investigation into their fund-raising activities. The Senate is likely to take up the McCain-Feingold measure next month. However, the timing of House action remains unclear.

Gingrich, in a meeting with reporters, said it would be "very helpful to have a debate this year." But a Gingrich aide said later that any action before Congress quits for the year is only "a possibility."

The latest, stripped-down version of the McCain-Feingold plan would ban large "soft money" contributions that allow wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions to pump millions of dollars into campaigns by routing the money through the national parties.

The bill also would limit so-called "issue advocacy" ads that critics say are nothing more than thinly disguised campaign commercials.

Senate filibuster looms

All 45 Senate Democrats and four Republicans support the measure. It would take a 60 votes for the measure to overcome a promised filibuster by Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and gain Senate approval.

Gingrich made clear that in the unlikely event the measure survives Republican opposition in the Senate, it would not stand chance in the House.

He sharply criticized the McCain-Feingold package as an effort to "bureaucratize free speech" by regulating the amounts of money that donors can give and the ways that candidates can spend it.

The speaker said it would do nothing to change the current system of federal regulations, because candidates would simply find new ways to get around the regulations, violating the spirit of the law in the process.

Instead, the Georgia Republican said he supports a proposal by Republican Rep. John T. Doolittle of California to essentially end the post-Watergate system of regulating federal elections.

Eliminates limits

This proposal would eliminate campaign contribution limits, repeal public financing of presidential elections and require electronic filing of campaign reports, which would be posted on the Internet.

But Gingrich appeared unfamiliar with the basic provisions of the Doolittle proposal. He stated, for instance, that it would ban soft money; in fact, according to a Doolittle aide, it would do no such thing.

The aide conceded that the proposal has no chance of passing the House anytime soon and said it would be "stupid to rush it to the floor."

Gingrich also reiterated his support for a plan to curb the political power of organized labor, in retaliation for an expensive campaign waged against congressional Republicans by the AFL-CIO in the 1996 election.

The McCain-Feingold proposal contains a limited restriction on union activity, in line with a 1988 Supreme Court decision.

It would require unions to allow nonunion members a refund of any portion of their dues that are used for political purposes.

Written permission sought

Gingrich would go beyond that. He would require unions to get written permission from all of their members in order to use their dues.

That proposal, which the White House and Democrats strongly oppose, would doom any reform effort if it became part of a campaign overhaul package.

Gingrich also praised another election proposal that has drawn Democratic opposition -- a measure by Rep. Stephen Horn, a California Republican, to verify the citizenship of voters on election day.

His plan would allow poll workers to review a voter's status with the Social Security Administration or the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

This plan is opposed by Hispanic groups and others, who see it as a form of intimidation aimed at a largely Democratic voter bloc.

Pub Date: 9/26/97

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