WASHINGTON — The House moved Tuesday toward likely passage of a bill that would begin to revamp the nation's much-disparaged campaign finance laws, but the measure still faces a potentially crippling impasse in the Senate.
The late-night action came as sponsors, facing strong opposition from conservatives, made their way through a bevy of procedural land mines planted by the House GOP leadership, which grudgingly allowed the bill onto the floor after more than 200 lawmakers demanded it.
The measure, similar to one that the House of Representatives passed 13 months ago, would rein in the two most-criticized practices in political fund-raising--unregulated "soft money" contributions to political parties and "issue" ads.
The legislation, sponsored jointly by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), would make the following changes in current law:
* It would ban the "soft-money" contributions that corporations, unions and wealthy persons now make to political parties--ostensibly for party-building--under procedures that allow them to escape the regulations that apply to direct contributions to candidates.
* It would limit the use of "issue" or "attack" advertising that avoids regulation by generally discussing candidates and their records without directly urging voters to elect or defeat them. Ordinary campaign ads are subject to strict rules.
* It would require candidates to file their campaign finance reports electronically and identify larger donors more completely. It also would create a commission to recommend other changes to campaign finance rules.
Critics have repeatedly cited both soft money and issue ads as two of the most corrupting influences in politics. Common Cause estimates that the national political parties have raised more than $55 million in soft money so far this year--almost twice as much as the comparable period in 1995.
Reformers argue that the corporations, unions and wealthy individuals who provide the money gain unfair influence in return.
But the issue has been a volatile one inside Congress--particularly among Republicans, many of whom fear that their party would be hurt more than Democrats if the measure before the House should become law.
As a result, while House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) carried out his pledge to reformers to allow the measure onto the floor Tuesday, GOP leaders made no secret that they opposed the bill and they threw up procedural roadblocks designed to send it to defeat.
The roadblocks included six so-called poison-pill amendments designed to fracture the bipartisan coalition that had supported the bill earlier and three otherwise popular "substitutes" that would replace the reform bill if approved.
Lawmakers defeated the amendments by large margins and then went on to take up the three substitute proposals. Republicans conceded in mid-evening that the substitutes were unlikely to win passage.
House members passed one provision that is potentially significant to California--a proposal that would prohibit anyone who is not a U.S. citizen from making campaign contributions to candidates for federal office.
Opponents said that the measure would bar noncitizens who are permanent legal residents--such as some Latinos and Asians--from one of the most significant ways they now can participate in the U.S. political system. The provision was approved, 242 to 181.
Strictly on partisan lines, House members also approved a provision--aimed at First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--that would require a candidate's principal campaign committee to reimburse the federal government whenever a candidate uses government transportation in a campaign. Mrs. Clinton is expected to run for the U.S. senate in New York.
In 1998, the House passed campaign finance legislation that contained the major provisions in the current bill by a vote of 237 to 186.
The current bill faces a bleak outlook in the Senate, which filibustered the House-passed measure to death in 1998. It has been lukewarm toward bringing up the legislation again, reflecting the vigorous opposition of top Senate GOP leaders.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, had planned to unveil a revised measure Tuesday in hopes of winning more GOP votes but delayed their announcement until later in the week as they seek more Republican support.
McCain has made campaign reform a key issue in his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
Tuesday's House action reflected the deep tensions among lawmakers over the campaign finance issue.
Polls show that Americans are dismayed over the huge flows of campaign money and its influence in domestic politics but there still is no consensus about how to deal with the problem. Even some would-be reformers view Tuesday's House measure as only a partial step.
The major competitor to the Shays-Meehan bill was a proposal by Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) that would ban political contributions by foreigners, require Internet posting of contributions over $200 and revamp a number of Federal Election Commission rules.
While backers of the Shays-Meehan bill supported the elements of Thomas' plan--and conceded that it would be more likely to win approval in the Senate--they warned that passing it, under the floor procedures that GOP leaders set down, would kill the broader proposal.
There were two other substitutes awaiting floor votes Tuesday night.
One, by Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), would increase limits on individual contributions to federal campaigns and restrict the use of soft-money contributions.
The other, by Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), would scrap all federal restrictions on political contributions, end public financing of presidential campaigns and require candidates to post all contributions on the Internet immediately.