Proponents of a sweeping campaign finance reform bill said Wednesday they remain short of the votes needed to pass the measure, whose fate could be decided in the House as early as today.
Democratic leaders and other backers of the bill launched a frantic last-minute push to scrape together votes, spending much of Wednesday in marathon meetings with black lawmakers who continue to express misgivings about the bill and seem crucial to the measure's chances.
Meanwhile, Republicans, who control the House, erected procedural hurdles late Wednesday that could make it much harder for the bill's sponsors to make a series of final changes designed to pick up votes.
The sponsors said they remain hopeful that they can win passage of legislation that aims to greatly reduce the influence of big money in politics. But their confidence clearly was wavering.
"We don't have the votes yet," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.). "But we're working diligently to get the votes."
Democratic leadership aides estimated they are at least 10 to 20 votes short of a majority for the bill. And they conceded that many of the commitments they have are contingent on the defeat of threatening amendments.
On that front, the bill's proponents are particularly worried about a Republican amendment that would bar legal immigrants from making political contributions. The provision would prompt most, if not all, of the 16 voting members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to drop their support of the bill.
The legislation, which would ban the "soft money" contributions that critics decry as a corrupting influence on politics, twice passed the House in recent years only to die in the Senate.
But its fate in the House became clouded after the Senate reversed course and passed a reform bill in April. Indeed, even if the current bill survives in the House, it could emerge bearing little resemblance to the Senate version. The result could be a compromise that falls far short of the soft money ban sought by reformers--or no final agreement at all.
While Democrats scrambled to hold together their ranks in support of the bill, Meehan and the measure's other main sponsor, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), were increasingly concerned about losing their grip on critical GOP allies.
More than 50 Republicans voted for the bill when it passed the House previously. But GOP leaders appear to have whittled that number in half this year by crafting a rival piece of legislation that would limit soft money but not ban it.
The GOP leaders continued Wednesday to seek more converts to their bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).
"They are working hard," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a supporter of the Shays-Meehan measure. Foley said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) tried to pressure him by telling Foley he was "one of the few" Republicans still supporting the more sweeping reform bill.
Shays sought to counter such efforts by warning his fellow Republicans that voters would hold them accountable if they kill the measure. "If this bill goes down, it will be the fault of the Republican Party," Shays said. "That's something that will carry through to the next election."
Still, Shays acknowledged that he and his allies have failed to win much support from freshman Republicans, a group that traditionally has been among the most eager to get behind reform.
Shays said the recruiting effort foundered this year largely because the latest crop of newcomers is more indebted to party leaders who indirectly helped them with ads and other efforts paid in part by soft money donations.
Democratic leaders concentrated their efforts on swaying black and Latino lawmakers who have expressed deep concerns about the ability to register minority voters and get them to the polls without soft money to finance such efforts.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) spent much of Wednesday in a series of meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Aides said he was offering commitments that the party would devote more of its resources in future elections to increasing voter turnout.
Some black lawmakers refused to be swayed. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) emerged from a meeting saying she remained undecided. But a colleague, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), a supporter of the Shays-Meehan bill, said he expects Waters and several others in the caucus to vote against it.
Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.) said that, at the least, the meetings helped the caucus drive home long-standing complaints about inadequate financial support for black candidates and voter drives within African American communities. "For once," she said, party leaders "are listening."
And Gephardt's relentless lobbying appeared to have had some success. Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who backs the Shays-Meehan bill, said the number of caucus members opposing it had dwindled from as high as 20 in recent days to fewer than a dozen now.
"There's a higher comfort level right now than there was 24 hours ago," Ford said. "I think the momentum is moving in the right direction."
Gephardt was scheduled to have another meeting with black caucus members today.
Democrats also remained worried about holding on to the votes of Latino lawmakers who are bitterly opposed to the Republican amendment that would bar legal immigrants from making political contributions.
A similar amendment passed in the House in the wake of the controversy over illegal contributions from overseas sources funneled to former President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. If it passes again, Gephardt said, "we got big problems."
The procedural hurdle Republican leaders sought to erect for the Shays-Meehan bill involved the ground rules for floor debate.
The bill's sponsors wanted to offer a single package of last-minute revisions they view as critical to winning over wavering votes. Some of the changes reflect negotiations with the ethnic minority lawmakers in recent days, such as assuring that candidates can help organizations such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People raise money for get-out-the-vote drives.
But Ney and other GOP leaders pushed to force sponsors to introduce those changes separately, which would result in 14 separate votes, reducing the likelihood that they would all survive.
Ney said separate votes were necessary because the changes were substantive. But worried Democrats described it as a last-ditch effort to derail reform.
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Comparison of the Campaign Reform Bills
The House is scheduled to vote this week on legislation that would overhaul campaign finance laws for the first time since the mid-1970s. Here are key provisions of the Senate bill passed in April and the competing versions in the House.
Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.)
Senate: Bans national parties from soliciting or spending soft money--virtually unregulated contributions that grew to $500 million in the 2000 campaign. Allows state and local political committees to accept contributions up to $10,000 for voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives.
Senate: Caps these federally regulated contributions at $2,000 for primaries and the same amount for general elections, up from $1,000. Caps to be adjusted for inflation periodically.
Senate: Bans unions, corporations and interest groups from funding ads that refer to a federal candidate in the last 60 days before a general election, the last 30 days before a primary.
House bill sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.); backed by McCain
House (Shays-Meehan): Same as Senate bill regarding national parties. Similar for state and local political committees, but with additional restriction banning use of soft money for voter drives that mention a federal candidate.
House (Shays-Meehan): Preserves current contribution limit of $1,000 for primaries and general elections for House candidates, would allow the increase to $2,000 for Senate candidates. Both indexed for inflation.
House (Shays-Meehan): Same as Senate bill, but allows exception for ads that reach fewer than 50,000 people within candidate's electorate.
House bill, sponsored by Reps. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Albert Russell Wynn (D-Md.); opposed by McCain and Feingold
House (Ney-Wynn): Caps contributions at $75,000 per year for each national party committee. Parties would be required to spend money on party-building activities such as get-out-the-vote and registration drives, rather than "issue ads" designed to benefit or criticize candidates.
House (Ney-Wynn): Preserves current contribution limits of $1,000 for primaries and general elections for all federal candidates. Indexed for inflation.
House (Ney-Wynn): No restrictions. But groups that run ads mentioning a candidate within 120 days of a primary or general election would have to disclose names of its officers and amounts spent.