Finance reform heats up

April 21, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the 2000 presidential campaigning already under way, the heat is mounting on Congress to reform the campaign finance laws before the next election.

Although a majority of both houses were on record for key reforms last year, a GOP filibuster succeeded in derailing the effort in the Senate. So it's still highly questionable whether changes sought can be enacted before the presidential primaries and general elections.

Money issues

The major reform being pursued is a ban on unlimited, unregulated "soft" money usually funneled through state parties ostensibly for party-building activities, but really used to support presidential candidates who are supposed to be supported only by federally regulated or "hard" money.

Without such a ban, a flood of soft money can be expected to wash out the federally imposed efforts to limit campaign spending and the heavy influence of special interests on the presidential choice.

House Democrats who worked with moderate Republicans last year and forced a House vote by a petition mechanism have just launched a similar petition, but so far without the Republican backing they need to get the bill to the floor again.

For now at least, the Republicans, led by the chief GOP sponsor last year, Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, are holding off in deference to the new speaker, Dennis Hastert. Mr. Hastert has promised his fellow Republicans that he will bring campaign reform to the floor sometime this year and has asked them not to join the Democrats in forcing his hand on the timetable.

A spokesman for Mr. Shays says the Connecticut congressman "wants to give Hastert a chance to follow through on the good will he's established so far" in his first months as speaker.

Mr. Shays, he says, joins the Democrats in wanting the bill to come to the floor by Memorial Day, and "he's not going to back away" if it's clear delaying tactics are being used again, but as of now "he's not ready to declare war on his party."

But Democratic reformers are not willing to count on Mr. Hastert's good will. They have already garnered 189 Democratic colleagues to sign the new petition, leaving them only 29 votes short of the majority of 218 they need to force a vote. If all House Democrats sign, they will need only six Republicans.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a pro-reform group, calls Mr. Hastert's position "a straight strategy to delay" on the assumption that the effort will run out of time and leave the existing law allowing soft money in place for the 2000 presidential election.

The chief Republican co-sponsor in the Senate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, can bring the reform measure to the Senate floor himself, but proponents say the best, and perhaps only, chance to pick up the eight Republican votes needed to break a filibuster is to have the House pass it first.

Meanwhile, the reforms' chief foe, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, continues to say they will pass only over his dead body.

On another track, Democracy 21 and Common Cause, the self-styled people's lobby, have asked all the declared and prospective 2000 candidates to pledge not to accept any soft money for their campaigns. At least one, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, has already promised not to.

But considering the estimate that at least $20 million will be needed to run a competitive race, it's not considered likely, short of legislation banning unregulated funds, that most of the candidates will agree to reject them. That's why the proponents say they will be putting heat on Republican moderates to buck Mr. Hastert early, by signing the so-called discharge petition that will bring the bill to the House floor by Memorial Day.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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