House proponents of campaign finance reform embraced key elements Thursday of a bill approved in April by the Senate--a shift designed to hasten action on legislation to ban the virtually unregulated "soft money" contributions to national political parties.
With House votes on a reform bill slated for early July, Democratic leaders are struggling to rally their troops behind it, fighting defections from blacks, Latinos and other party members who have had second thoughts about changing campaign finance laws.
House Republican leaders hoped to lure those wavering Democrats with an alternative bill that would limit soft money but not ban it. Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), author of the GOP alternative, said Thursday that his measure had won support from Rep. Albert Russell Wynn (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus' campaign finance task force.
But sponsors of the broader bill, Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), remained optimistic they had the votes to prevail. Their strategy is to avoid having the House pass a version different enough from the Senate measure that the legislation would go to a conference committee. They fear that would give GOP opponents a chance to quietly bury the reform effort.
To bypass that prospect, the new bill Meehan and Shays unveiled closely mirrors the Senate version. That means that if the House passes it, it could be sent back to the Senate for quick final approval without going to a conference.
The new bill includes a compromise on an issue that has deeply divided many Democrats: the Senate's proposal to raise from $1,000 to $2,000 the limit on the regulated contributions to candidates known as "hard money."
Some House Democrats have objected to that increase because Republicans tend to have an edge in raising such contributions. As a compromise, the revised Shays-Meehan bill would raise the limit to $2,000 only for Senate candidates. The $1,000 limit would remain in place for House candidates, though it would be indexed for future inflation.
House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), while saying he was willing to support this provision, said such changes are not without political risks. "This is not a done deal," he said.
The maneuvering on both sides has intensified because the long-awaited House debate on campaign finance legislation is scheduled to begin as soon as Congress returns from a weeklong Fourth of July recess.
The House twice passed bills calling for soft-money bans in recent years--with nearly unanimous backing by Democrats--only to see the measures die in the Senate. But the 2000 elections saw several advocates of campaign reform win Senate seats, paving the way for passage of a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.).
"We've never, ever been this close [to approval of a soft money ban in both chambers], so the stakes are very, very high," Meehan said.
Gephardt is working hard to stem Democratic defections--especially from black and Latino members who oppose increasing contribution limits and are expressing new concerns that the soft money ban will make it harder for the party to mount get-out-the-vote drives. Gephardt said those qualms have increased among Democrats since the 2000 election, when many believed the party's voter mobilization efforts fell short.
Soft money contributions have grown dramatically during the last decade, with businesses, unions and wealthy individuals often writing six-figure checks to the party of their choice. Though the donations technically are not supposed to directly help a particular candidate, the parties frequently use the money to help pay for "issue" advertising that clearly seeks to influence an election's outcome.
McCain, who ran for president in 2000 with campaign reform as his signature issue, has been using his own influence and political prestige to try to increase support among House Republicans. He has sent letters to two dozen House Republicans for whom he campaigned after his presidential bid failed, urging them to support the Shays-Meehan bill.
House Republican leaders have criticized the effort, saying McCain's letters smacked of threatening retribution.
"If somebody came to me and said I campaigned for your election and therefore you owe me this vote on this thing, I would personally say, 'Get out of here!' " said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).
McCain defended his action as appropriate, adding that it did not represent "any kind of threat or intimidation."
To address some of the concerns raised by the black caucus, the revised Shays-Meehan bill would create a loophole in the soft money ban: It would allow contributions of up to $10,000 in soft money to state and local parties--but only for voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Ney's alternative bill would limit soft money contributions to $75,000 a year and prohibit national parties from using soft money for broadcast ads. It provides for increasing the limits on hard money contributions to political parties but not to individual candidates. And it would require disclosure, within 24 hours, of the source of funding for broadcast ads that mention candidates for federal office.