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Battle Has Venomous Finish

Dispute: Exchanges are the harshest since the Clinton impeachment, Rep. Foley says.

July 13, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — At the end of the day, House members weren't just divided--they were bitter.

There would be no debate into the wee hours on the merits of campaign finance reform. For now it was--if not dead exactly--then in a coma, put there by a normally routine procedural vote that failed, 228 to 203.

The outcome flashed in orange lights on the scoreboard high above the chamber floor as ordinary citizens looked on from the gallery. Crowded into the chamber, House members glared across the aisle.

"The hostility is as raw as I've ever seen in this process--outside impeachment," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

It had been a wild and uncertain ride--with the fate of Shays-Meehan, the bill at the center of the controversy, alternately seeming doomed and revived throughout the day.

And there was no shortage of hard feelings or blame about the process and the result.

A clearly irritated Christopher Shays, the Connecticut Republican co-sponsoring the House bill with Democrat Martin T. Meehan of Massachusetts, spoke out early in the day. A complicated rule proposed by the GOP leadership would have put his bill through 14 amendment votes--a move the bill's proponents charged was a back-door attempt to kill it.

Shays was mad. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), he said sharply, had warned him this would happen, that the House leaders would undermine him. Implied but left unsaid by him: That was precisely what had happened.

That was enough to raise House Majority Leader Dick Armey's ire. In an uncharacteristic and lengthy Republican-on-Republican attack, he chastised Shays for calling into question the intentions of the party leaders.

"This is a decent and honorable committee," Armey said of the Rules Committee, whose members had not finished the guidelines until after nearly 1 a.m. Thursday.

Why, Armey asked, was it the fault of the Republican leaders if their colleague made changes to his own bill, one that, Armey said several times with scorn, Shays had assured him "was ready to go two weeks ago."

Furthermore, Armey continued, any attack on House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was unjustified.

"The speaker is an honorable man that has bent over backwards to be generous to the backers of the Shays-Meehan bill," Armey said. "I regret that there are people in this body that are that small."

Armey's speech brought Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) to the microphone with a story of his own to tell. The Republicans, Ford said, reminded him of the kid in his old neighborhood who wasn't any good at sports but got to play because he owned the only ball. Ford said that, while Republicans controlled the House, that didn't mean the campaign finance bill they favor--one sponsored by Reps. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) and Albert Russell Wynn (D-Md.)--is any good.

"Mr. Leader," Ford said, "bring the ball back. Let the rest of us play. You have a bad bill, but the rest of America wants campaign finance reform."

But even as harsh words were exchanged on the House floor, leaders from both sides worked frantically to try to reach a compromise to bring the campaign finance reform bills to a vote.

Although the fight may not have been in his chamber, McCain wasn't about to stay out of it. Early Thursday afternoon--the effort's fate looking grim--he gathered moderate Republican allies around him in the offices of the House's top Democrat, Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

It was time for a gut check.

McCain pointed a finger at each of the seven Republican House members seated in front of him, congressional aides said, and asked the key question: How are you going to vote on the rule?

They each answered "nay."

Armed--at least by their count--with enough Republican defectors to defeat the rule, it appeared for some time Thursday afternoon as if Shays-Meehan backers would force a compromise. As the minutes ticked by on a vote that stayed open longer than any other in House history, no one seemed to know exactly what was going on.

Republicans, meeting behind opaque glass doors in the Capitol's basement, ultimately decided against compromise, sending the rule as written to the floor for a decision. The matter drew to a close just before 6 p.m., as Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) reminded members that the Energy and Commerce Committee was meeting that night. "Food will be provided on a bipartisan basis," he joked, although few members chuckled.

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