House bipartisan effort pushes vote on campaign finance bill; Reform measure survives amendment attempts to cut chances of passage


WASHINGTON -- Successfully navigating a minefield of destructive amendments, sponsors of a drive to ban large, unregulated contributions from federal election campaigns won a House vote last night and hoped their measure would survive the Senate.

Winning passage, 252-177, just before midnight, leaders of a bipartisan coalition supporting the campaign finance measure said they were determined to keep up the pressure. A similar bill won House passage last year by an almost identical margin only to stall in the Senate, where Republicans are again threatening to renew their opposition.

"This is the best opportunity we have in this Congress to speak out in favor of free and fair campaigns. So the cynicism can be put aside so the American people can have more faith in us," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat.

Opponents, who include Republican leaders in both chambers, contended the measure would limit free speech by prohibiting TV and radio ads that indirectly support or attack candidates for their positions on certain issues.

Advocacy groups from across the political spectrum, but most prominently the anti-abortion National Right to Life committee, have termed the effort to make them comply with federal campaign regulations unconstitutional.

"It continues to amaze me that members of Congress, newspapers and senior scholars advocate limiting free speech and prohibiting citizens from criticizing government officials in the name of campaign reform," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

Yet the coalition held strong through a half-dozen attempts to chip away support through changes to the bill.

First lady, and possible New York Senate candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the target of one of the successful amendments, a proposal to require candidates to reimburse the federal government for use of government transportation for campaign purposes.

Yesterday marked the latest attempt by an unusual alliance of Democratic liberals, Republican moderates and anti-government conservatives from both parties to rein in a campaign financing system that has outgrown the barriers built more than two decades ago to contain it.

Most of the Maryland delegation voted for the measure execpt for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, and Roscoe G. Bartlett of western Maryland.

A similar bill passed the House last year, 252-179, but a companion measure died in the Senate because it fell eight votes short of the 60 required to cut off debate.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has promised to allow a week of debate on the campaign finance measure by mid-October. That time could include votes on amendments but only one attempt to surmount the 60-vote hurdle.

Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican Whip, said yesterday that the measure as proposed last year continues to lack 60 votes.

But its Senate sponsors, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, contemplated changes that might win more support.

Opponents didn't take aim during the House debate at the bill's principal feature: an end to the virtually unregulated spending by the political parties of so-called "soft money," unlimited donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, which is used to indirectly aid candidates.

Both political parties are making increasing use of soft money to circumvent laws that prohibit such contributions if the money is given directly to candidates.

The Republican and Democratic parties have raised a total of $55 million in soft money so far this year -- 80 percent more than the $30.6 million raised during the same period in the 1996 presidential election cycle, according to a study by Common Cause.

Republicans continue to maintain an advantage of about 3 to 1 in overall "soft money" contributions, and some GOP lawmakers say that's the real reason why most Democrats want to change the system.

"There is no public clamor for this legislation," said Rep. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican. "The hue and cry for this bill is occurring inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C., largely by those who would receive an advantage by a tilting of the playing field. For its liberal advocates, this bill is really about party politics."

Campaign finance reform continues to rank below the top priorities of most Americans in public opinion surveys. Only 30 percent of the respondents in a recent ABC-Washington Post poll said it would be "very important" in deciding their vote in the next president election. (Cutting taxes, a GOP priority, drew only 44 percent. Education ranked first at 79 percent.)

Pub Date: 9/15/99

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