House Feuding Derails Campaign Reform Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The push to overhaul campaign finance laws skidded to a halt in the House on Thursday amid bitter partisan fighting over who was to blame for scuttling a bill aimed at reducing the influence of big money in politics.

A day that was supposed to deliver a decisive vote on sweeping reform legislation instead collapsed in a welter of procedural wrangling that ended with serious doubts about whether the bill can be revived.

The anticlimactic outcome added to a long history of setbacks for legislation that has become a moral crusade for proponents, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but evokes ambivalence in many members, given the issue's considerable implications for their own careers.

Sponsors of the legislation--which sought to ban the largely unregulated contributions known as soft money that critics charge are out of control--vowed to continue to press for a vote on the measure as soon as next week.

But GOP leaders expressed no inclination to revisit the issue anytime soon. "Right now I have no plan to bring this up," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

He said the House will press forward on other issues, including a patients' protection bill, making it doubtful that the House will reconsider campaign finance reform before the August recess, if it does so at all this year. Reform advocates expressed deep disappointment that their bill was derailed after once having seemed closer than ever to becoming law. That optimism has been sparked by Senate passage of a similar bill in April and hints from President Bush that he was prepared to sign a reform measure.

"This is not a happy day," said McCain, who had steered the legislation through the Senate and worked frantically this week to line up GOP votes for it in the House.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who faced some defections from his own ranks on the issue, added, "This is a loss for the American people."

Even so, the indirect way the measure sank on Thursday--essentially snagged after leaders from both parties deadlocked on a procedural squabble--allowed both sides temporarily to escape a showdown on the floor that neither side appeared confident it could win.

Democrats averted an outright floor defeat of the bill that would have dealt a major blow to their efforts to reform campaign finance laws, which have been largely unchanged since the Watergate era.

Republicans were able to sidetrack a bill they strenuously opposed without having to vote against it and incur political heat for appearing to be against reform.

The outcome also gave both sides ample opportunity to assign blame.

"We're going to see crocodile tears shed by the Democratic leadership," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). Worried that they lacked the votes to pass the bill, the Democratic leaders were willing to let it stall, Dreier said.

Democrats responded that they were the victims of underhanded tactics by the GOP that made it impossible for them to give their bill a clean shot at an up-or-down vote.

"All we want is a fair vote," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the bill with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Given that opportunity, Meehan said, "I feel strongly that we well may have passed the bill tonight."

That vote never came because of procedural maneuvers that started in the wee hours Thursday, when Republicans threw a parliamentary roadblock in front of the Shays-Meehan bill.

The House's GOP leaders, who set the rules of debate on legislation, denied what the bill's backers described as a routine request to make a single amendment out of a series of last-minute changes to their legislation.

Instead, the GOP leaders moved to force the sponsors to introduce their changes--14 in all--one at a time, each subject to a separate vote.

The bill's proponents complained that that amounted to a "14-point obstacle course" and said that all but ensured some of their changes would be defeated, including provisions designed to pick up support from wavering members. That, in turn, could have doomed the entire bill.

"We're not being treated fairly in this process," said McCain, who worked with House sponsors. "This is the last refuge of scoundrels."

So, after hours of tense negotiations between the parties failed to produce a compromise, the bill's backers chose to fight the Republican terms of debate. They prevailed on a 228-203 vote, with 19 mostly moderate Republicans joining all but one Democrat to oppose the procedural rule.

That vote against the rule also dissolved the agreement to bring the bill up for debate. Democrats said they may now move to force their measure back to the House floor by filing a so-called discharge petition, but that could take months.

The one Democrat siding with Republicans to support the rule was the party's perennial maverick, Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. of Ohio.

No California House members strayed from their party.

Opponents of reform were delighted that Democrats effectively voted to knock their bill off the House schedule.

"Reformers killed reform," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who led the fight against McCain's bill in the Senate. "I am writing thank you notes to Christopher Shays, Martin Meehan and Richard Gephardt."

Outside the Capitol, reform advocates who have fought for years to get a measure through Congress sought to put a positive spin on the setback. The vote on the rule "was a victory for the forces of reform and the principles of fairness," said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a pro-reform group. "The courage of Shays and 18 Republicans to stand and be counted is quite remarkable. We'll be coming back."

But the narrowness of the procedural vote showed how House support for the reform drive has slipped after the chamber voted by large margins in 1998 and 1999 to pass virtually identical legislation.

Many say those earlier votes were artificially inflated because members knew the measures were sure to die in the Senate, and they therefore could cast symbolic votes.

There were other new factors working against reformers this year, including new reluctance from black and Latino House members still smarting from how many minority votes were not counted in Florida in last year's disputed presidential election there. As a result, many of these Democratic lawmakers were threatening to withhold their support for the Shays-Meehan bill, citing concerns that depriving parties of soft money would harm efforts to register minority voters and get them to the polls.

With the prospects for reform so real this year, many unions and organizations ordinarily loyal to the Democratic cause, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Assn., came out against reform.

And fewer House Republicans also were willing to back the bill, in part because GOP leaders offered an alternative that would have limited, but not eliminated, soft money. These donations have exploded over the last decade, soaring from just $45 million in the late 1980s to nearly $500 million last year.

The money comes mainly in the form of big contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. Technically earmarked for generic party-building activities, soft money has increasingly been used to pay for so-called issue ads that amount to endorsements of or attacks on candidates.

New evidence of the parties' growing dependence on the funds came this week, as the Republican National Committee disclosed that it had raised a record $48.6 million in the first half of the year, including $12.6 million in soft money. The Democratic National Committee said it raised $23 million in that period, less than half of it soft money.

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