Campaign-spending overhaul heads for showdown in marathon House
WASHINGTON (AP) — The most sweeping overhaul of campaign spending rules in a generation eased past a series of obstacles Wednesday in marathon House debate, clearing the way for a post-midnight vote on passage.
Republican leaders battled to the end against the bill designed to reduce the role of money in politics, arguing it was stacked against their party and unconstitutional as well. But a bipartisan coalition led by Reps. Christopher Shays and Martin Meehan trumped them routinely on key test votes.
“People think money taints every decision that is made in this Congress,” said New York Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, one of 39 rank-and-file Republicans to buck their leadership on a 240-191 late-afternoon vote that bestowed preliminary approval on the legislation.
“We should not be afraid to go into a new era, to leave the old beyond,” said another Republican, Rep. Zack Wamp of Tennessee.
Passage would send the bill to the Senate. Supporters there hoped for swift acquiescence that would send the legislation to President Bush’s desk for his signature.
Bush has generally stayed above the fray, although the White House stepped in during the day to criticize a late change inserted by supporters as “unfair, unwise and unwarranted.”
“The president believes that this should be removed,” said spokesman Ari Fleischer, addressing a provision that Republicans charged would benefit Democrats.
Meehan told reporters several hours later the bill’s supporters had agreed to clarifying language, although he insisted Republican critics had interpreted the provision incorrectly. “I want everyone to feel good about what we’re doing,” said the Massachusetts Democrat.
And despite Fleischer’s comments, two senior Republicans who advise the White House said that Bush’s political team had determined that the bill would pass, and that the president had decided against a veto.
Still, the developments on and off the House floor underscored the unpredictability of an issue that has long veered between lofty constitutional concerns and bare-knuckled political combat.
“The current campaign finance system is a disaster and it’s an embarrassment to American democracy,” said Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., one of a parade of lawmakers who argued that legislation was needed to rein in special interests. Several supporters made mention of the scandal surrounding Enron, the bankrupt energy-trading company.
But critics argued just as passionately the bill was unconstitutional, and a fraud as well. “This bill does not contain real reform. Instead, this bill strips citizens of their political rights and unconstitutionally attempts to regulate political speech,” said Rep. Tom DeLay, the House GOP whip.
The House bill would ban unlimited “soft money” donations to the national political parties, typically five- and six-figure donations made by corporations, unions and individuals.
State and local parties would be permitted to raise soft money, but only in amounts of $10,000 or less. None of the funds could be spent on political commercials.
The bill, pushed to the floor over the opposition of Republican leaders, also would ban the use of soft money to buy “issue ads” within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary. These ads are typically purchased by interest groups, and while they stop short of expressly advocating the victory or defeat of a candidate, they often are harshly critical.
Another provision, added during debate, stripped out a requirement that would have tightened existing law requiring political broadcasting to be sold at a preferential rate. The legislation’s backers nominally opposed the amendment — but the influential National Association of Broadcasters supported it — and Shays and Meehan carefully avoided calling it a “poison pill” that would doom the measure.
By contrast, they worked intensely to defeat numerous other changes proposed by the GOP leadership.
One, backed by the powerful National Rifle Association, would have suspended the restrictions on soft money advertising for “any matter pertaining to the Second Amendment,” which guarantees the right to bear arms. It was narrowly defeated, 219-209.
Backers of the bill established their command over the House floor early in the proceedings, brushing aside two Republican-backed alternatives before winning preliminary approval for their own bill.
The tally included 200 Democrats, 39 Republicans and one independent in favor, and 180 Republicans, 10 Democrats and one independent against.
On another point of contention — the focus of Fleischer’s comments — Republicans said the bill contained a loophole permitting party committees to use soft money to pay off any debt — a reversal of current law.
“I don’t think it needs to be changed,” said Sen. Russell Feingold. The Wisconsin Democrat, a leading supporter of the Senate version of the bill, watched from the House floor while the critical test vote occurred on preliminary approval.
Republicans, he said, were relying on “a strained reading of the language.”
But Republicans produced a letter signed by two incumbent members of the Federal Election Commission, saying the Democrats were wrong.
The proceedings on the floor seemed bewildering at times as each side maneuvered for advantage.
Longtime opponents of the bill advanced proposals that Shays and Meehan once struggled in vain to approve. And Shays, Meehan and their allies, in turn, rejected them as part of their effort to hold together the coalition behind the current plan.
“This substitute is not cynical,” said Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., seeking to fend off criticism for proposing an immediate ban on soft money.
“When people are being hypocritical in a political argument, it’s a sign they know their real argument won’t work,” Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said tartly in an interview just off the House floor.