Nowhere left to hide on reform

February 11, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After years of delaying tactics, often mixed with crocodile tears over the delays, the House of Representatives has to face the music this week when campaign finance reform finally comes to the floor.

Proponents of a modest reform bill that would ban unregulated "soft money" in federal campaigns, and those who say they want reform but really don't will have to turn up their hole cards in one of Capitol Hill's longest-running political poker games.

The pressure of public opinion and the embarrassment of the Enron scandal have helped the reformers break House Speaker Dennis Hastert's hammerlock on the legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut and Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts.

Until the Enron story broke, a House discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor over Mr. Hastert's objections was tantalizingly short of the 218 signatures required.

With evidence that Enron officials had given campaign money, most of it "soft," to 188 House members of both parties, the few needed names suddenly materialized amid the public outcry.

The fight, however, is not over. Mr. Hastert, in avoiding a House vote on Shays-Meehan last year by parliamentary maneuver, had seemed then only the puppet of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. But the speaker is now putting his own prestige and muscle on the line.

Leaks from a closed Republican caucus have it that Mr. Hastert called Wednesday's scheduled vote "Armageddon" and "a life-and-death issue" for continued GOP control of the House. The implication was that without freely flowing soft money, the Republicans couldn't win.

The anti-reform strategy has long been to alter the House bill, very similar to the already passed Senate version, enough to require a House-Senate conference. Then reform foes such as Mr. DeLay and Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could scuttle it.

When the bill came up last year, Mr. Hastert tried to force a rule that would have permitted opponents to introduce any number of amendments, or "poison pills," as the proponents called them.

The reformers balked, whereupon Mr. Hastert simply shelved the legislation - until the petition broke his hold on it.

It's suspected that many House members of both parties endorsed Shays-Meehan as a safe way to look noble while fully expecting the bill to fail. Republicans against campaign limits on principle and Republicans and Democrats with an instinct for survival appear to have played this game.

The 218 names on the petition are therefore no assurance that Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan have the votes for passage. But proponents hope the climate created by Enron will persuade pretenders and fence-straddlers to support it in the Wednesday showdown.

The usual goo-goo (for good government) organizations - Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, AARP, the Sierra Club and others - are applying grassroots pressure on uncommitted House members of both parties.

Targeted especially are 43 House Republicans who have backed versions of Shays-Meehan in the past but are keeping their own counsel. Seventeen of them signed the discharge petition, but that doesn't guarantee they will vote for the bill.

One legislator still on the fence, Republican Rep. Doug Ose of California, says Shays-Meehan actually is too weak for him and he is waiting to see what amendments will be offered. But few expect any strengthening amendments, just those "poison pills."

The bill's foes have a substitute sponsored by Reps. Robert Ney, an Ohio Republican, and Albert Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat, that would put a limit on soft money rather than ban it outright - a limit, the Shays-Meehan forces say, that would open the floodgates to special-interest money again. If that fails, the opponents will offer amendments designed to kill the bill or force the black hole of a House-Senate conference into which any campaign finance reform would disappear.

In 1998 and 1999, the House passed similar reform bills but the Senate failed to act. This time, the Senate went first and approved a companion reform bill by Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. Now House members who vow they want reform but don't mean it can't look to the Senate to bail them out. Finally, it's put up or shut up.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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