Early vote on campaign finance gets boost

Morella, 4 others in GOP join Democrats in dissent

May 27, 1999|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County and four other moderate Republicans bucked their party's House leadership yesterday, joining a Democratic effort to force an early vote on campaign finance reform.

"I was disappointed that the speaker did not plan to have the bill come out for consideration in a timely manner, so it could be taken up by the Senate," Morella said.

"If we want to enact any reform to take effect for the 2000 elections, it would have to be done now. Timing is everything."

The bill, written by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, would ban the unregulated "soft money" donations to political parties.

It would also bar issue advocacy ads paid for by interest groups that aid candidates but avoid campaign finance limits by not explicitly endorsing them.

Together, Republicans and Democrats raised $225 million in soft money for the 1998 elections.

Republican leaders in both the House and Senate oppose the Shays-Meehan measure, calling it a violation of free speech.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois offered to bring the legislation to a vote in September. But Shays and other advocates argued that House passage in September would be too late for the Senate, which by then will likely be bogged down with major spending bills and other legislation, to consider the measure before Congress adjourns for the year.

Trying to embarrass the Republican leadership and force an earlier vote, Democrats asked lawmakers to sign a petition that would dislodge the legislation from the House Administration Committee.

The tactic worked last year, when advocates of a campaign finance bill obtained 207 signatures on a discharge petition, prompting then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to allow a vote. The bill passed by a broad margin in the House but died in the Senate after a prolonged filibuster.

The petition that Morella signed now has 201 lawmakers' signatures -- including those of 196 Democrats -- and needs 17 more to force the current measure to the floor.

Several Republicans who backed the Shays-Meehan bill last year, including Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore, recently said they were satisfied that Hastert's schedule is a reasonable one.

The dissent by the small cluster of GOP centrists represents a setback for Hastert, a well-liked conservative whose ascent was hailed by the party's moderates as a soothing influence after the roller-coaster leadership of the more bombastic Gingrich.

"It's disappointing," said Hastert's spokesman, John Feehery.

Describing the five moderates, Feehery said, "I guess they're getting heat. But people out in the country are not exactly mobilizing on campaign finance reform."

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