WASHINGTON -- Once again, campaign finance reformers will make a major effort starting this week to close off one key spigot in the mushrooming flow of special-interest money into the election process before next year's presidential race.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert has agreed to call up the reform bill co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Christopher Shays and Democratic Rep. Martin Meehan that would ban "soft" money -- unregulated contributions that now go to state political parties but regularly are diverted to help presidential candidates.
Under federal law, corporations and unions are barred from giving directly to such candidates but increasingly they have been going around the law through the soft-money route. Wealthy individuals, limited to giving $1,000 to any candidate, also use this device.
The Shays-Meehan bill, which passed the House comfortably with bipartisan support last year only to see its Senate version filibustered to death, also would rein in "issue advocacy" ads that are thinly veiled pitches for candidates, and reform certain functions of the Federal Election Commission, which oversees federal campaign money matters.
But it is the soft-money ban that is the bill's prime thrust, and draws its major opposition, essentially from Republicans, led in the House by Majority Whip Tom DeLay and in the Senate by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
Villain Gingrich gone
Last year, the bill's proponents had a conspicuous villain in then Speaker Newt Gingrich with whom to rally Democratic and moderate Republican support. With Mr. Gingrich gone, Mr. DeLay plays that role, although according to the reformers with a much lower profile this time around.
Fortunately for the reformers, Mr. McConnell has volunteered for the role of villain with recent critical letters to members of the Committee for Economic Development, a leading group of business executives, which had the temerity to call for campaign reform on grounds that they were weary of being pressured to make campaign contributions.
Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold, co-sponsor along with Republican Sen. John McCain of the Senate version of Shays-Meehan, says Mr. McConnell's criticism of the CED was "a monumental mistake" in defense of what he calls "a form of extortion."
The loss of support from the business community in Mr. McConnell's continuing effort to scuttle campaign finance reform, Mr. Feingold says, coupled with strong editorial backing for it, can bring about a breakthrough this fall, first in the House and then in the Senate. To defeat Shays-Meehan, House Republicans will offer 10 amendments this week, seven of which the sponsors call "poison pills" designed to split the pro-reform coalition, and three substitutes, any of which if passed would kill Shays-Meehan. Pro-reformers have been pointing out to their supporters in the House the importance of voting down all of these, including some otherwise attractive proposals, if Shays-Meehan is to prevail.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Trent Lott has promised to bring campaign finance reform up by Oct. 12. Last year, the Senate fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to cut off the filibuster and Mr. Feingold expresses hope that Mr. McConnell's criticism of the CED will break the logjam.
This time the McCain-Feingold bill will come up under a procedure permitting amendments, which may enable the reformers to lure additional support by the addition of sweeteners that some of the moderate Republican fence-sitters might want.
Mr. Feingold and Republican Sen. Susan Collins have identified about a dozen of them and have been aggressively lobbying them. Getting eight is still considered a long shot, but no longer impossible.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 9/13/99