WASHINGTON — As the House battle on campaign finance reform legislation starts today, frantic Republican leaders are warning their troops that the future strength of the GOP is at risk if the bill passes.
But a key party warrior has been missing from the battlefield: President Bush, who has been keeping a low profile in the House's pivotal debate on limiting special-interest contributions to politics.
Bush is under pressure from House Republican leaders to change his posture and help their effort to kill or cripple the bill. If Bush stays on the sidelines, they warn, the bill is far more likely to pass, aided by substantial defections from Republican ranks.
But Bush has made no secret of his desire to steer clear of an issue that has bedeviled him since it was central to his presidential primary fight against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading proponent of the bill coming before the House.
The reform issue confronts Bush at a particularly awkward time. Enron Corp. and its executives have been major financial backers of his political career, and the administration has labored to demonstrate that its policies have not been affected by the energy company's influence.
Bush spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Monday that White House aides may work with GOP leaders on crafting amendments to the bill--changes that reform backers contend are aimed at killing the measure. The president however, has made no commitment to getting personally involved, Buchan said.
Bush's hands-off stance on campaign finance reform has generated some tensions between the White House and House Republicans. Some lawmakers believe they have taken significant political risks to carry his agenda on trade, taxes and other issues through Congress, and now he is failing to reciprocate on a matter crucial to them.
Lawmaker Questions Bush Aides on Issue
At a recent closed-door party retreat, many Republicans were infuriated when three top aides to Bush, including chief political advisor Karl Rove, refused to give a straight answer to a blunt question about whether the White House would help House leaders amend or defeat the campaign finance bill.
"They didn't have an answer," said Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), who posed the question. "This is something they would just as soon stay away from, but they are going to have to be right in the middle of it."
At issue is legislation, backed by most House Democrats and a cadre of renegade Republicans, that would eliminate "soft money"--the unlimited, loosely regulated contributions to national political parties by corporations, unions and individuals. With the amount of such donations now totaling hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle, reformers say soft money givers such as Enron are bound to exert unfair clout on politicians.
Versions of the bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), passed the House twice in the late 1990s. But each time, the measure stalled in the Senate.
In April, after McCain had spotlighted the issue in his presidential bid, a reform bill passed the Senate. During the debate on it, Bush said he supported a ban on soft money contributions by unions and corporations, but that the prohibition should not apply to individuals. He also called for a requirement that unions get the consent of their members before using dues for political contributions, a proposal strongly opposed by labor leaders and most Democrats.
Neither the House nor Senate bills reflect Bush's recommendations, but so far he has not threatened to veto the bills.
In Milwaukee, where Bush spoke Monday, deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of Bush's position: "The president has made his principles very clear: He supports campaign finance reform," McClellan said. "If it improves the system, the president intends to sign it."
McCain, meanwhile, has remained a major player in the debate. He held a news conference Monday with business executives who support the soft money ban. Later, he met with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) to plot strategy. And he is phoning fence-sitting House members to urge their support for the reform bill, including some Republicans he campaigned for in 2000.
GOP leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric to stem defections. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) told a closed-door meeting of Republicans last week that the bill was a matter of "life and death" to the GOP, saying its passage could cost the party control of the House. A major GOP concern is that unions, acting on their own, still would be able to mobilize get-out-the-vote efforts for Democrats. Republicans, without soft money, could not match such efforts, the GOP leaders say.
But some Republicans fear that without a veto threat from Bush, such warnings and calls for party unity may lack teeth.