House OKs campaign reform bill

House measure bars unlimited soft money to political parties

Fierce politics, lobbying

Sponsors say bill would limit influence of special interests

February 14, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After a long day of bare-knuckle politics, the House approved early this morning sweeping legislation that would rewrite campaign finance laws to ban unlimited donations to political parties.

On a final tally cast shortly before 3 a.m., lawmakers voted 240-189 to back a measure, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would prohibit "soft money" donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The bill would also curb political ads financed by special-interest groups shortly before an election.

A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans also resisted a series of weakening amendments to the bill, which would overhaul the campaign finance system for the first time since the 1970s. Minor changes must still be approved by the Senate before the bill can be enacted and sent to President Bush.

Supporters say the legislation would lessen the influence of special interests in Washington. "People think money taints every decision in Congress," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, one of 39 Republicans who voted with 200 Democrats and one independent in favor of the measure. "It's not true, but people think it, and we need to change that impression."

But opponents, protesting that the ban would curb free speech, fought vigorously until after midnight to defeat or cripple the measure. Their hope was to make the bill unacceptable to the Senate, which has passed a similar bill.

"This bill doesn't constitute real reform," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip. "Instead, it strips citizens of their constitutional rights to free speech. We ought to let voters decide through instant disclosure [of campaign documents], so they will be able to see where people are collecting their money and spending it."

Critics also argued that under the legislation, special interests would gain more, not less, influence over elections because outside groups and wealthy individuals could spend money independently of the parties.

In one of the most serious threats to the bill, opponents tried in vain to have its provisions take effect today, instead of at the end of this year's election season.

"They just want to make it harder for me," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, which would be very reluctant to apply the measure to campaigns already under way this year.

House Republican leaders, who have been resisting similar measures for years, seized early in the debate yesterday on what they called a "loophole" provision that was added late Tuesday night. They contended that the provision would allow party committees to use soft money to pay off debts for which current law says soft money can't be used. They said the provision would create a boon for debt-ridden Democrats.

Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, called the provision "unfair, unwarranted and unwise."

"The president still wants to sign something that improves the system," Fleischer said, calling on the House to remove the "troubling" language from the bill.

But Fleischer stopped short of saying that the president would veto legislation that included that provision. And Republican opponents warned those in their party, as they have for weeks, that they expect Bush to sign any campaign finance measure that emerges from Congress.

The bill's sponsors insisted that there was no loophole and said opponents' interpretation was faulty. But they maneuvered this morning to clarify the provision before a final House vote on the bill. At the same time, the measure's supporters said critics had seized on the provision as a way to try to kill campaign finance reform.

"Do I wish we had said, `Under no circumstances could soft money be used for this?'" Shays said outside the House chamber. "Yes, because it makes it ambiguous enough to give people an opportunity to raise the question. But if it wasn't this, it would be something else. We know we have opponents who intend to take apart any part of this that isn't clear in intent."

As the debate wore on, the chief sponsors of the Senate version, McCain and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, roamed the halls outside the House chamber trying to prevent defections.

Meantime, interest groups on both sides were lobbying furiously by telephone. Charlton Heston of the National Rife Association placed calls to House members, trying to win support for an amendment to exempt gun rights from any curbs on issue ads. The amendment was narrowly defeated.

With the specter of Enron haunting the intensely personal debate, supporters of the bill argued that the financial misdeeds of the politically well-connected company underscored the need to diminish the influence of special-interest money in federal campaigns.

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