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03/31/98- Updated 08:59 AM ET

House rejects campaign finance bill

WASHINGTON - Any hope of campaign finance reform legislation getting through the House this year depends on plans by Democrats and a group of Republicans to outmaneuver the GOP leadership and force a vote on the bill they say has the best chance of passage.

House members didn't even get a chance to vote on that bill Monday. Instead, operating under restrictive rules that limited debate, prohibited amendments and required a two-thirds majority for passage, members voted 337-74 to reject an alternative Republican-drafted bill that contained elements that offended members of both political parties.

Democrats, who denounced the process as a "sham" and a "cynical maneuver," promised to begin pressuring colleagues to support a parliamentary procedure that would, if successful, allow them to bypass the traditional committee process and automatically schedule their bills for votes.

"It's the only way left to reverse this fraud that's perpetuated on us here tonight," said Rep. Scotty Baesler, D-Ky. "Campaign finance will not die today. The game is not over."

The effort requires 218 signatures, a majority of the House. So far, just 188 members - 182 Democrats and six Republicans - have signed what is known as a "discharge petition."

"Only 30 more signatures are needed to bring campaign finance reform to the floor under fair rules," said Ann McBride, president of public interest group Common Cause, which was launching a nationwide campaign to secure the remaining signatures.

"We're going to get that vote before this Congress ends," added House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Even some Republicans criticized the process that brought four campaign finance bills to the floor under procedures typically reserved for the least controversial measures.

The harshest critics said GOP leaders rigged the process to allow a vote on reform - as Speaker Newt Gingrich had promised - while killing the legislation at the same time.

"When we act with such transparent tactics, can we blame the public for giving up hope?" asked Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. "Do we really believe that we can go home and tell our constituents that we had an honest debate and vote on reform? I don't think so."

The main bill, presented as the Republicans' response to calls for an overhaul of campaign finance rules, aimed to curtail union political activity and ban large, loosely regulated "soft money" donations to the national political parties. Democrats and some Republicans criticized the union provision.

Republicans subsequently extended the ban to state parties after critics said such donations could be funneled back to congressional campaigns without a similar ban.

"Soft money is the narcotic that's destroying our democracy," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., who repeatedly has battled party leaders over the issue.

The bill also would have let local election officials seek federal help to verify the citizenship of prospective voters and allow individuals and political action committees to donate larger sums to candidates than current law allows.

GOP leaders - none of whom spoke in defense of the measures - also offered three other bills.

A measure to tighten the prohibition against noncitizens making donations or expenditures in connection with federal elections passed 369-43.

The House defeated, 246-166, a measure that would have required unions to get written permission from individual members before spending their dues for political activity.

The final measure, requiring stronger disclosure of contributions, passed, 405-6.

Shays, Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., and others had pressed for a vote on their alternative.

President Clinton had argued for its passage. In a letter Monday to Gingrich, Clinton said the Shays-Meehan bill was the "best chance in years to reduce the role of special interests, give voters a louder voice and treat fairly incumbents and challengers of both parties."

The Shays-Meehan bill, which resembles a Senate version that was blocked by a Republican filibuster, would ban soft-money donations to national and state parties and put controls on late-campaign attack ads that used a candidate's name or face but weren't covered by existing law.

The bill also would allow nonunion workers who pay agency fees to control the use of their own fees for political purposes, but that would not cover union members.

After promising a vote by the end of March, GOP leaders abruptly postponed until April or May votes planned for last Thursday. The next day, after Shays and others criticized the decision, they reversed course again and scheduled the votes under the restrictive procedures.

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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