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House Yields on Campaign Money Reform

Finance: Embarrassment over Enron's political donations revives petition by lawmakers, forcing GOP leaders to allow a vote. Bush signals he would not thwart bill.

January 25, 2002|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the Enron Corp. scandal providing powerful momentum, campaign finance reform advocates Thursday broke through a major legislative barrier and won the right to a House vote on their bid to limit the role of big money in politics.

Although the fate of the reform effort remains uncertain, the development gives renewed life to a movement that had stalled last year. The odds now have improved that the most extensive overhaul of the campaign finance system since the Watergate era will become law.

The reformers' main goal is to ban so-called soft money, unlimited and largely unregulated donations to political parties instead of to specific candidates. And reform advocates clearly believe the controversy over Enron--which over the years has been a large soft money donor--has fueled their cause.

"As the Enron storm clouds roll in, the public's tolerance for this soft money system is growing increasingly thin," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.). Soft money, he added, "needs to banished, and banished fast."

There also were new indications Thursday that President Bush--a major recipient of campaign contributions from Enron--would not thwart a reform bill if it were sent to him.

Although Bush has differed with congressional reformers on how extensive a soft money ban should be, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at his daily briefing that the president "is committed to having campaign finance reform enacted into law."

And in a clear signal to GOP congressional leaders that the burden for blocking a reform bill is on their shoulders, Fleischer added: "The president has made it very clear to Congress that [it] cannot count on him to veto campaign finance reform."

Fleischer's comments came as two Republican House members and two Democrats gave reform advocates the final signatures they needed on a petition to force a vote on the issue, overcoming opposition from GOP House leaders. The new names gave the petition 218 signatures--the bare majority in the 435-member House.

Without the rank-and-file rebellion--a rare feat in the history of the House--the reform effort would have been dead in this year's congressional session.

The reform effort had crossed a milestone last April when the Senate passed a bill that would abolish soft money contributions, as well as ban certain types of political advertising in the last 60 days of a campaign. But parliamentary skirmishing in the House derailed action on a similar reform bill last July.

Exactly when the new House debate on the issue will begin is unclear.

Rep. Charles F. Bass (R-N.H.), who was one of those signing the petition Thursday, said that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised him a vote in February. A spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said the GOP leaders would discuss the schedule at a party retreat this weekend.

While the petition drive to force a House vote likely would have succeeded even without Enron's financial collapse late last year, the saga of the energy-trading company's demise has given campaign finance reform a potent new rallying cry.

In the 2000 election cycle, Enron and its executives gave $1.7 million in soft money contributions to both parties. Such donations typically are spent on television commercials and other advertising that stop just short of explicitly advocating a candidate's election or defeat.

The two parties raised almost $500 million in soft money in the two-year period that ended Dec. 31, 2000, and an additional $133 million during 2001, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Defenders of the current system say banning soft money would infringe on the constitutional right of free speech. And to bolster their argument that large contributions do not necessarily buy influence, they argue that Enron got no special treatment for its money.

Critics of soft money say the Enron case underlines the corrosive power of unregulated campaign cash. The say that at the least, Enron benefited from an unwillingness of lawmakers to take a close look at the company's business practices until it was too late.

Enron, said Rep. Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.), "dramatizes and exemplifies and gives a specific face to the problem. . . . It gives [the soft money issue] an edge that it had lacked before."

Petri was the other Republican who broke with the GOP leadership Thursday to sign the petition.

One reason reform advocates are optimistic about their chances now that the issue has been muscled back onto the congressional agenda is that versions of a soft money ban passed in the House twice in recent years, most recently in 1999.

So opponents of the legislation, such as Hastert and Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), will have to persuade some lawmakers to change their positions--not an easy sell with the Enron scandal dominating the news and November elections looming.

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