Congress braces as battle on campaign finance nears

Enron fall refocuses attention on issue

February 12, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A high-stakes showdown in Congress over campaign finance reform - postponed last summer after a House bill became trapped in a procedural quagmire - will resume tomorrow, thanks in large part to the Enron debacle.

The spectacular collapse of the Enron Corp., which had given lavishly to both parties, has refocused attention on the money that oils the political system. Many who favor reform point to Enron's easy access in Washington as a symbol of how big money can corrupt the system.

Even some who oppose the legislation acknowledge that Enron has made campaign finance reform hard to ignore.

"Enron makes people very nervous and very anxious," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, the leader of a small band of Democrats who, along with the majority of Republicans, oppose the bill.

"I think more people would be undecided about supporting the legislation if they weren't afraid that it would look like they are not concerned about what happened at Enron."

The measure that will come before the House would rewrite the federal campaign finance laws for the first time since the post-Watergate reforms a generation ago. Its key provision would outlaw the unlimited donations to political parties known as "soft money" that come from corporations, unions and wealthy people.

Republican leaders in the House oppose the measure. But in the midst of the uproar over Enron, supporters managed to force a vote by securing 218 signatures on a petition, the bare minimum needed in the 435-member House.

"Enron takes it out of the abstract," said Niel Wright, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican who was among the last of the House members to sign the petition.

It is not clear that the Enron disaster has transformed the climate in Washington enough to assure that a ban on soft money - which has passed the Senate - will be enacted into law. Republican leaders are working mightily to defeat the measure.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert warned his Republican troops last week that their party would lose its slender 222-211 majority if the ban on soft money passed. He said he fears that Republicans would no longer be able to match the support that Democrats receive from unions. And he likened the conflict to "Armageddon."

The pressure from Hastert could be difficult to resist. The fate of the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, is likely to be decided by a small group of swing Republicans.

"When the speaker of the House makes comments like that, I think you can be sure they are pulling out all the stops," said McCain.

The main strategy of House Republican leaders will be to introduce amendments that could force the bill into a conference committee that could doom it.

House sponsors of the bill are also trying to make small changes to pick up support without losing any backing in the Senate. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's bill passed the Senate with 59 votes in March but would need 60 to overcome a filibuster.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, a leading opponent of the soft money ban, contends it would violate constitutional protections of free speech. If a House-passed version of the bill returns to the Senate, McConnell has vowed to filibuster at least until he wins agreement for the measure to be sent to a conference committee.

McCain, long the most vocal champion in Congress of reform legislation, is lobbying with equal vigor for passage of the measure in the House. But, he conceded yesterday, "victory is far from assured."

Even Petri, who was part of sizable bipartisan House majorities that passed similar legislation twice over the past five years, cannot be counted as a definite vote in favor of this year's bill.

"He'll wait until he hears the debate," Wright, Petri's spokesman, said of the congressman.

Petri spent yesterday traveling to and from his home state aboard Air Force One with President Bush, who opposes the Shays-Meehan bill.

Last year, Bush stayed out of the lobbying effort in the House and Senate, signaling to Republicans that they could not count on him to veto campaign finance legislation if they allowed it to reach his desk. But supporters of the bill fear that Bush might quietly try to influence a handful of members to support amendments in the House that would be unacceptable to the Senate.

"It's no secret that some on the White House staff are working against this bill," Shays said. "They almost don't have to say anything and still we recognize they are not out championing the bill."

Some Republicans argue that the Enron collapse has no connection to campaign finance laws. The corporation inflated its profits and concealed its mounting debts, but once its dubious practices were revealed the stock plunged, causing stockholders and employees to lose billions as it collapsed into bankruptcy.

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