March 27, 1998

G.O.P. Leaders in House Put Off Vote on Campaign Finance Reform

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    WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders on Thursday decided to put off a vote on campaign finance legislation after days of behind-the-scenes maneuvering left them short of the support they needed to kill a bipartisan plan to rewrite the nation's election rules.

    The Republican disarray signaled that at least for now a majority exists in the House to pass an overhaul bill that would ban political parties from accepting large unregulated donations known as soft money. The legislation, which would also curb "issue ads" by outside groups, is fiercely opposed by Republican leaders, whose party generally has a fund-raising advantage.

    Last month the Senate also mustered a slim majority for the legislation, which was sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis. But the legislation died when its proponents could not gain the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

    "The bottom line is that McCain-Feingold would pass in the House because there would be enough Republicans to join with the Democrats," said Rep. Christopher Shays. Shays, R-Conn., is sponsoring the McCain-Feingold legislation in the House along with Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

    With some Republicans worried about going into an election year without taking a stand to clean up the campaign system, Speaker Newt Gingrich had promised a House vote on the issue this spring, no matter what happened in the Senate.

    Republican leaders had scheduled the vote for Thursday or Friday. But the measure they had intended to send to the House floor was a bill drafted by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.

    Thomas' bill was considered sure to be defeated because it contained provisions certain to be opposed by Democrats, including a requirement that unions receive written permission from members to use their dues for political purposes.

    The Thomas measure would ban the national political parties from accepting soft money donations, but not the states, leading the groups pushign for an overhaul of campaign finance laws to denounce it. "It allows the money to be laundered through the state parties," said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, the public-affairs lobbying organization.

    As further insurance against change, Republican leaders in the House did not plan to allow the McCain-Feingold measure to be voted on at all, even as an amendment. But they ran into unexpected trouble when a dozen or more Republican lawmakers said they would work with the Democrats and use one parliamentary manuever or another to pass the McCain-Feingold bill.

    "We've got to have some way of getting a genuine debate on campaign finance," said Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J.

    Rather than risk losing, the leaders put off the vote at least until next month.

    "The reformers wouldn't agree to work with us," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference.

    He said his party would not practice "unilateral disarmament" -- a reference to the fact that the McCain-Feingold legislation would not rein in political spending by organized labor, which generally supports Democrats.

    Where the debate moves from here is uncertain. A refusal to allow any campaign finance bill to the floor at all would be an embarrassment to Gingrich, who had promised one.

    Michele Davis, spokeswoman for the House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, said on Thursday night that the bill would not be considered until after the Easter recess ends in late April. She said a decision had been made to "take the time and do it right."

    One plan under consideration, if all else fails, is to place the campaign finance bills, or elements of them, on a special House calendar, with special rules that require a two-thirds vote for passage.

    That calendar is usually used to speed along noncontroversial measures. In this case it would serve to guarantee that campaign finance overhaul would be defeated since none of the bills have that kind of level of support.

    Shays predicted that such a move would backfire. "The bottom line to it is if there's not a fair process, it does not go away," he said. "We're a system where a majority rules, not a supermajority. We're not the Senate."

    Democrats, who want to use an overhaul of campaign finance laws as a political issue this fall, assailed the Republicans for the delay.

    "They do not want campaign finance reform to pass," Rep. George Miller, a D-Calif., said in a speech on the House floor. "They want it to fail. The problem is now the bill has too many votes. So they have to go back and tinker with it to see if they can make sure that enough people will not approve it."

    Representative Scotty Baesler, Democrat of Kentucky, said he would continue an effort begun last year to try to use a special petition to force the McCain-Feingold bill to the House floor for a vote. He has been stuck at 187 signatures, 31 short of the 218 needed to bypass the usual House rulemaking process.

    "We're going to keep on pushing," he said, "and see whether those people who said they would stand with us if they didn't get a vote mean it."

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