Campaign finance reform harder to kill than expected

August 07, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to campaign finance reform, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his chief partner in obstructionism, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, must feel like a couple of campers trying to kill a snake that has found its way into their tent. No matter how many blows they deliver, the darn thing keeps on wiggling.

The passage by the House of the main vehicle for banning unregulated soft money, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, and Martin Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, is the most impressive rebuke yet to the Gingrich-Armey leadership against campaign reform, especially considering that 51 Republicans defected from them on the critical vote earlier this week.

After months of delaying tactics and "poison pill" amendments designed to scuttle Shays-Meehan, it now has successfully run the gantlet constructed by Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Yesterday it cleared the only remaining hurdle -- a weaker bill restricting soft money sponsored by a bipartisan group of freshmen who earlier crafted their bill presumably in the expectation that Shays-Meehan couldn't pass.

Rep. Tom Allen, a Maine Democrat and a sponsor of the freshman bill, argued that his bill and Shays-Meehan were not too dissimilar, and the main objective is getting some reform bill through the House. He says the main difference is in dealing with issue-advocacy ads, which profess to simply take a position on a particular issue, but actually boost a political candidate without naming him or her.

Shays-Meehan requires that such ads -- within 60 days of an election -- be treated as candidate-driven and paid for with regu lated "hard money" limited by law.

Shays and Meehan, however, saw the freshman bill for what it was, a political "poison pill" that could have killed their bill and allowed House members both to vote for reform and to save the issue-advocacy option so prized by special interests.

Now that the bill has survived, it faces an uphill fight to get the Senate to resurrect it. In February, the Senate saw the comparable legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, killed by filibuster.

"The key is McCain, who should be willing to lead the battle" when Congress comes back to work in September, said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a leading private reform group.

Mr. McCain said after the first House vote that it would be "exceedingly difficult" to turn the Senate around. And as a prospective candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, he may not be anxious to undertake a task that is not popular in his party. At the same time, Mr. McCain said the House vote might persuade a "super-majority" of senators required to break a filibuster to do so. Sixty are needed, and the reformers are eight votes short in the Senate.

Obvious targets are 12 Republican senators who voted against it in February and are up for re-election in November. They include Alfonse D'Amato of New York, Christopher Bond of Missouri and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, all expected to have significant Democratic opposition.

Whatever else it achieves, the House action has focused full attention not only on the recalcitrant Senate but on President Clinton and the White House. The president has repeatedly paid lip service to the need for reform -- even while raising huge amounts of soft money, as he did again in the Hamptons last weekend, because he is not in favor of unilateral disarmament by the Democrats.

But the president has never gone to the mat on the campaign finance issue by proposing a package of his own and by entering serious negotiations over the issue. Perhaps he believed that simply would never be worth the effort. But the House has shown reform is not an impossible dream, just a difficult one.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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