House passes finance reform 61 Republicans defy GOP leaders to OK fund-raising overhaul

Senate approval unlikely

Panel goes after Reno for rejecting probe

August 07, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In a stinging rebuke to the Republican leadership, a bipartisan House coalition yesterday passed a sweeping overhaul of the nation's campaign funding laws, sending the bill to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle.

In its final major act before adjourning for its August recess, the House voted 252-179 to pass legislation co-written by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat.

Sixty-one Republicans defied their leadership to vote for a bill that would ban "soft money," the unlimited donations to political parties that fueled the fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign. The bill would also impose new curbs on attack ads funded by special interest groups in the last days of a campaign.

At the same time, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee moved yesterday toward an unusual high-stakes confrontation with the nation's leading law enforcement officer, Attorney Gerneral Janet Reno.

The committee voted along party lines to hold Reno in contempt of Congress for refusing to release memos written to her by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and Charles LaBella, a top Justice Department investigator, detailing why they favor the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Democratic fund-raising.

Such a contempt citation is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in prison.

But the full House is unlikely ever to vote to issue the citation. Reno has pledged to revisit whether she should seek an independent counsel and said she would seek a compromise with Republican leaders before Congress reconvenes in September.

Reno has so far refused to release the memos, contending that the disclosure of such sensitive information would damage the department's own campaign finance investigation.

Reformers from both parties insisted yesterday the best

response to the campaign finance scandals of 1996 would be an overhaul of the system well in advance of the next presidential election.

Maryland legislators split

Maryland's Republican representatives were split on the legislation pushed through the House yesterday. Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland voted against the bill; Reps. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore voted for it.

All four Maryland Democrats -- Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore, Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland and Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore -- supported the legislation.

Many rank-and-file Republicans joined the bill's supporters just minutes before passage, fearing that their political opponents would use a "no" vote against them in the November elections.

"This is about saving our democracy," Shays declared. "That's what this is about."

Opponents just as strongly denounced the measure as a muzzle on free speech, because it would restrict the ability of interest groups to launch anonymous "issue advertisements" in the final 60 days of a campaign.

Calling the bill an "incumbency protection plan" that would hinder a challenger's ability to reach voters, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, said, "Anybody in this country has a right to criticize us in any way possible."

The legislation survived weeks of tortured debates and parliamentary wrangling, but it still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where a nearly identical bill fell to a filibuster this year.

Senate advocates fight time

Advocates expressed confidence that they have the momentum gain the eight votes needed to reach 60 and end opponents' stalling tactics and ensure passage. Ann McBride, president of the pro-reform group Common Cause, pledged to launch a grass-roots blitz to pressure senators.

"If there's a piece of legislation where the pieces are falling into place, where momentum is building, it's this legislation," Meehan said.

But Senate Republican leaders say they will not have time to return to the issue when they return in September for a final month of work. "If [supporters] want to lay down on the railroad tracks, fine, but they can't even get 53 votes, much less 60," an aide to Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott said yesterday.

House passage came even as both parties this week kicked off efforts to raise tens of millions of dollars in soft money for the fall's campaigns. The National Republican Congressional Committee's "Operation Breakout" plans to spend $37 million on issue ads this fall. The Democrats "Unity" campaign plans to raise $18 million.

Campaign finance reformers say such efforts have increased voters' cynicism, given undue influence to big donors and turned federal office-holders into full-time fund raisers.

"We did the right thing today," Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said of the vote to curb such soft-money drives. "Every one of us knows the status quo has to change."

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