March 28, 1998

New G.O.P. Hurdles on a Campaign Bill

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    WASHINGTON -- Abruptly shifting gears, the House Republican leadership announced Friday that it would take up four campaign finance bills on Monday -- but not the main bipartisan bill, which would not be allowed to the floor.

    The four measures, all backed by the Republican leadership, would be considered on a special calendar under which they cannot be amended and would require an all-but-unattainable two-thirds vote to pass. These rules are usually reserved for the consideration of non-controversial legislative items such as a resolution honoring a group or individual.

    The announcement was made by Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, the majority leader, and was the latest twist in the effort to overhaul campaign finance laws. Democrats and some moderate Republicans responded with indignation.

    Among them was Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., who is co-sponsoring the bipartisan bill with Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.

    "I cannot believe the total disregard for the public interest that we have seen this afternoon," Meehan said. "It's an absolute outrage. I have never seen it this bad before."

    In November, Speaker Newt Gingrich, hoping to secure enough votes from Republican centrists to adjourn the House, promised a vote on campaign finance legislation by the end of March. In announcing that four bills would be voted on next week, Armey said the Republican leadership was fulfilling that commitment.

    Christina Martin, press secretary for Gingrich, explained the decision this way: "Today, in an elected leadership meeting, it became clear that there were a number of members who had informed their constituents that there would be a vote on campaign finance before Easter, regardless of their stance on the issue. Therefore they wanted the promise fulfilled."

    House Republican leadership is fiercely opposed to the Shays-Meehan proposal, which is similar to one sponsored in the Senate by John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis. The House bipartisan proposal would restrict so-called issue ads, which often skirt campaign regulations by focusing on candidates, and ban the unlimited and unregulated donations that corporations, unions and individuals give to political parties for general activities like voter turnout.

    In any case, the Shays-Meehan bill would not have gained the two-thirds vote to pass if it had been included on the special calendar. But the Republican decision to not include the bill in the package to be voted on next week eliminated not only the possibility of a test vote showing that it could obtain a majority but also campaign television commercials singling out Republicans who voted against the Shays-Meehan proposal.

    The Republican leadership's maneuver provoked the extraordinary scene on the House floor as Democrats stepped back to allow some Republicans to direct sharp questions at their own leaders.

    For several minutes, Shays mordantly questioned Armey on how he could call the new approach a fair and open debate. To question Armey, Shays had to ask the opposition Democrats to yield some of their speaking time. Each time he made the request, the Democrats complied, producing the legislative version of holding Shays' coat while he did the fighting.

    "I yield to the gentleman from Connecticut," Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., said eagerly as Shays pressed the majority leader. "I'm more than happy to yield."

    The House leadership's maneuver came just a day after the Republicans abandoned their plans to vote this week on campaign legislation. The vote was put off because enough Republicans were leaning toward the Shays-Meehan bill that it threatened to pass on a procedural motion. The Republican rebellion showed that the bill could very likely achieve a majority.

    But the decision to kill any vote on campaign finance until after the House recess, which begins at the end of next week, did not sit well with some on the leadership, said senior Republican aides. Some Republicans did not want to be left vulnerable to criticism from Democrats and some moderate Republicans.

    Thursday's decision provoked a group of conservative Democrats to press a petition that would allow a number of campaign finance bills, including the Shays-Meehan proposal, to be considered. The petition has already gained 187 signatures, leaving it only 31 signatures short of the number needed to bring it to the floor.

    One of the Democrats, Scotty Baesler of Kentucky, said he wanted "to challenge those who say they are for campaign reform to fish or cut bait."

    Although Shays and Meehan cannot block the leadership's plans for Monday, they signaled that it would bolster the efforts by Baesler and others to collect enough signatures on their petition.

    Shays offered this assessment: "I think every Democrat and every reform-minded Republican would want to sign a discharge petition that allows for a free and open debate on campaign."

    Of the four bills to be considered, one would ban the national political parties from receiving the unlimited donations, known as soft money, but would still allow state parties to use such contributions money for federal candidates. The bill includes a number of other elements that are certain to provoke opposition from Democrats. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

    The second bill would prohibit noncitizens from contributing to political campaigns. The third bill, which is opposed by Democrats but embraced by many Republicans, would require labor unions to seek explicit permission from their members to spend their dues on political activity. The fourth bill, which might actually get a two-thirds majority, would expand reporting and disclosure requirements for campaign contributions.

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