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House Walks Fine Line on Finance Reform Bill


WASHINGTON — Almost all politicians here profess generic support for campaign finance reform. But getting them to endorse--and actually vote for--specific proposals can be a slippery task.

Well aware of this, the advocates of a House bill to limit big-money donations redoubled their efforts Friday to firm up their fragile bipartisan coalition. The mobilization came after the success Thursday of their petition drive to force a House vote on the reform issue.

Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chief sponsors of the reform bill pending in the House, acknowledged that winning the petition signatures of 218 lawmakers did not mean they have locked up that many votes for the measure itself.

"They're not necessarily committed to voting for final passage," Meehan said of the signers. "This is about getting a bill to the floor."

For instance, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who provided signature No. 217, said her vote still is in play. She said she would like to add to the bill provisions that would encourage voter turnout.

On the other hand, Shays predicted that some lawmakers who refused to sign the petition--in part because it is a parliamentary device that undercuts House leaders--would end up supporting the bill.

The legislation's main provision would ban so-called soft money--the unlimited and largely unregulated contributions to political parties. These donations now total hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and reform advocates argue that the money allows corporations, businesses and wealthy individuals to exert undue influence over the political process.

Similar versions of the Shays-Meehan measure have passed the House twice, most recently in 1999. But the outcome of this year's debate remains clouded.

Of the 252 representatives who supported the 1999 reform bill, 226 still are in the House. Many of them signed the petition to call up the bill, but some did not.

Also, it appears that some lawmakers are preparing to vote against the bill, even though they co-sponsored past versions of it.

During the previous debates in the late 1990s, it was clear that the bills the House passed would die in the Senate. But in April, the Senate passed a sweeping reform bill written by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.). The prospect that a reform bill might actually become law caused some House members to reconsider their support for the movement.

What seems certain is that leaders of the House Republican majority--most prominently Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas--will try mightily to defeat the Shays-Meehan bill. The GOP leaders were not available for comment Friday.

The Republican leaders oppose the drive to abolish soft-money contributions, arguing that such a ban would infringe on constitutionally protected free speech. That argument and others were being revived this week.

"I would rather defeat so-called campaign finance reform than pass legislation that . . . obliterates the political parties and hinders crucial get-out-the-vote efforts, which are so important to the American election process," said Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee.

The Shays-Meehan bill differs in some relatively minor ways from the Senate bill. That means that if the House passes the Shays-Meehan measure, the Senate in all likelihood would be forced to vote again on the reform issue.

Despite last year's Senate vote, passage of a reform bill a second time would be no sure thing.

Under Senate rules, the bill could be subject to a filibuster, requiring 60 votes to break. Last year, McCain and Feingold appeared to have that level of support; whether that has changed this year remains to be seen.

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