Proponents of campaign finance reform said their cause was strengthened by Monday's Supreme Court ruling that parties can be restricted in how much money they give candidates. But reform advocates still may fall short of their ultimate goal--strict new contribution rules.
Indeed, the ruling came at a time when their bid to enact the most far-reaching reform legislation in a generation appears increasingly uncertain.
Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), who is drafting the GOP measure, said Republican leaders are optimistic about its chances because "a lot of groups and a lot of members are having serious reservations about" the specifics of the Senate bill.
The issue is expected to come to a head in July when the House is scheduled to begin debate on campaign finance reform.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), would outlaw the unlimited and virtually unregulated contributions to parties known as "soft money." Over the last 10 years, parties have become increasingly dependent on these big-check contributions from well-heeled donors, corporations and unions. This money cannot be funneled directly to candidates, but it is widely used to promote their candidacies or criticize their opponents.
Twice in recent years, the House passed campaign finance reform legislation by comfortable margins, only to see the legislation die in the Senate. This year, reform advocates fear the reverse may happen because the once-broad House coalition that backed the reform legislation appears to be fraying.
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are withholding their support, citing concerns that banning soft money could hurt basic party functions that are critical in minority communities, such as get-out-the-vote drives.
A number of House Democrats are also balking at the McCain-Feingold bill because, even though it bans soft money, the measure doubles limits on the direct contributions to candidates from $1,000 per election to $2,000.
House Republicans, led by Ney and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), are hoping to prey on these divisions in the Democratic camp. Ney said his bill, which he intends to offer as a substitute to McCain-Feingold, will likely allow soft money to survive but ban certain kinds of political ads and preserve the current limits on direct contributions to candidates.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold bill in the House, said he believes he still has the votes to fend off the challenge.
"I understand my colleagues have concerns," Shays said. "There will be some gut-wrenching votes for some members. But in the end I can't believe the black caucus will become the instrument of Tom DeLay."
Monday's high court ruling did not specifically address provisions of the McCain-Feingold bill. Instead, the court voted 5 to 4 to uphold Watergate-era restrictions on direct contributions parties make to candidates.
But reform advocates hailed the ruling as a sign that the court is inclined to let contribution limits of all types stand. They also saw it as a rejection of an argument often raised by reform foes such as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that restricting campaign contributions is a violation of free speech.
"The decision today in the court was huge because it reaffirms that spending limits are constitutional," Shays said. "It's a tremendous rebuke to Mitch McConnell's argument."
For his part, McConnell said that "the so-called reformers were on the ropes in this case, with a single vote keeping the shackles on the parties."