March 31, 1998

Republican Lawmaker Is Caught in the Middle

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    WASHINGTON -- Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., was on his way to a news conference to blast his party for blocking what he saw as a true change in campaign finance rules.

    But only 10 minutes before he was to meet with reporters, standing alongside Democratic allies and spokesmen for liberal interest groups, an aide brought Shays word that his leaders had put him in yet another bind: The main Republican bill had, at the last minute, been sweetened in a way that could force him to come back into the fold.

    His press secretary, Seth L. Amgott, proclaimed himself "terrified." Shays was not sure how he would vote. He had promised House leaders that he would support the bill if it effectively banned soft money in federal elections. But if he did vote for the bill, would the same editorial writers who had just proclaimed him a hero now cast him as a sellout?

    When the cameras rolled, Shays spoke out as planned against the process that House leaders had used to limit the debate on campaign finance rules. They had kept the bipartisan bill he had co-sponsored with Rep. Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., from coming to a vote. And they had had used fancy parliamentary moves to bring only Republican bills -- four of them -- to a vote in a way that his allies insisted would yield no real change even if they passed.

    In his shirt sleeves on an warm spring day, Shays told reporters: "I'm involved in a process where I don't know if I'm up at bat or on the field. But whoever wins or loses, it won't be the American people."

    When asked specifically whether he would support the comprehensive Republican bill if it contained provisions banning the use of unregulated soft money, he said he had not seen the bill and could not say. But, he said, he would not vote against a good bill just to make a point.

    "I would send any campaign finance bill to the Senate," he said. But meanwhile, he added, "I'm happy to stir the pot a little bit because they need it."

    A soft-spoken moderate who nonetheless says he has been been one of Speaker Newt Gingrich's "biggest fans," Shays seemed genuinely sad to speak out against his party's leaders. And he was still defending Gingrich to an extent, saying the Speaker was only doing what the Republican conference wanted.

    Walking away from the news conference, Shays said he would probably end up voting for all four Republican bills. But, almost to himself, he added: "When the Republicans took over, we said things were going to be different, but I have not seen that to be the case."

    Back in his office, Amgott told Shays he was scheduled to be on the "News Hour" with Jim Lehrer, in a debate on Monday night with Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the sponsor of the Republican bill. And Shays immediately asked his staff to schedule two hours of prep time.

    But Amgott was soon back with an update: "They don't know if they want you on as a great reformer if you're voting for" the Republican bills.

    "But I'm going to be very critical of the process," Shays complained. Still, he was out, he later learned.

    He also found out he would have trouble getting time to speak on the House floor. His party did not want to give him time to oppose them, and Democrats were suddenly hesitant to yield their time.

    "The Republicans had said you could have as much time as you wanted but that's changed," said an aide, Allison Clinton Rak. "You can have one minute. The time is in high demand."

    Now Shays was annoyed. "I don't want one minute; one minute is a joke," he said. "But the question is, do I call Thomas?" to beg for time from his own party.

    About that time, too, a representative of Common Cause dropped by with the latest: The Republican bill would not, after all, ban all soft money for federal elections, she told him, because it wouldn't touch the use of soft money for "issues ads," which are one new way the parties have gotten around the limits.

    With his feet on the coffee table in his office, Shays sighed. "I'm keeping my options open and this is why," he said.

    At 6 p.m., just as debate on the bills was to get under way, Shays decided to grab what he called a late lunch in the member's dining room. There, he took a call from a Republican member still lobbying for his vote -- and received congratulations from Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.

    At the end of the day, he said, he could not be altogether annoyed with his party because he believed its machinations would only mobilize public support for campaign finance reform.

    "I'm not enraged" at their tactics, he said, smiling. "I just think it's dumb."

    Later, less than an hour before the vote, Shays finally made his decision: He would oppose the main Republican bill after all.

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