WASHINGTON — Advocates of campaign finance reform inched closer to forcing a vote on their legislation in the House this fall, picking up the support Thursday of the only California Democrat who had not signed a petition to bring the measure to the floor.
Reform backers said the signature of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) leaves them just 11 shy of the 218 needed to override House Republican leaders and compel a vote on a bill that seeks to reduce the influence of big money in politics.
The petition drive is crucial to reviving a bill that cleared the Senate in April and was supposed to face a decisive vote in the House two months ago. But the measure was yanked at the last minute amid intense partisan fighting over the rules of debate.
The bill's sponsors vowed Thursday to step up pressure on House members who previously voted for reform but have so far not signed the petition. They said they would conduct a series of town hall meetings--including one in Memphis today and others in Chicago and Philadelphia in the coming weeks--to drum up support.
"We're still here and we're not going away," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the reform bill. "I'm convinced campaign finance reform will come to the floor and it will pass."
But Shays and the other principal co-sponsor, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), face intense opposition from Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other GOP leaders, who say they don't plan to allow another vote on campaign finance reform this year.
"Right now, he's going to focus on the economy and education and prescription drugs," said John Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert.
The bill's sponsors also have encountered reluctance from at least 19 lawmakers who voted for reform bills that previously passed the House but are now withholding their signatures from the petition drive.
Among them are two members of the California delegation, Republican Reps. Doug Ose of Sacramento and Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley.
A spokesman for Gallegly said he "is a strong supporter of campaign finance reform but does not sign discharge petitions," a step many Republicans are reluctant to take because it flouts the will of party leaders.
Ose previously co-sponsored the legislation but said in a written statement he is concerned the current bill does not go far enough. "The current Shays-Meehan campaign finance legislation is a 'lite' version of the one I co-sponsored last year," Ose said.
Reform advocates scoffed at that rationale.
"I don't buy that argument," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, who has lobbied for reform legislation for more than 20 years. "This is fundamental reform and there's no basis for moving away from this bill if you supported the legislation in the past."
The bill would ban the unlimited and unregulated political contributions known as soft money. These contributions have soared over the past decade, as both parties pursued six-figure donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.
The bill would also impose new restrictions on television ads funded by advocacy groups and raise limits on "hard money" donations--regulated contributions currently capped at $1,000 per candidate.
Waters said she had been withholding her support for the petition drive partly because she had been "trying to negotiate for a tougher campaign finance reform bill." The petition now carries the signatures of 191 Democrats and 16 Republicans.