WASHINGTON -- After a long day of bare-knuckle politics, the House approved early this morning sweeping legislation that would rewrite campaign finance laws to ban unlimited donations to political parties.
On a final tally cast shortly before 3 a.m., lawmakers voted 240-189 to back a measure, sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, and Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would prohibit "soft money" donations from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The bill would also curb political ads financed by special-interest groups shortly before an election.
A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans also resisted a series of weakening amendments to the bill, which would overhaul the campaign finance system for the first time since the 1970s. Minor changes must still be approved by the Senate before the bill can be enacted and sent to President Bush.
Supporters say the legislation would lessen the influence of special interests in Washington. "People think money taints every decision in Congress," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, one of 39 Republicans who voted with 200 Democrats and one independent in favor of the measure. "It's not true, but people think it, and we need to change that impression."
But opponents, protesting that the ban would curb free speech, fought vigorously until after midnight to defeat or cripple the measure. Their hope was to make the bill unacceptable to the Senate, which has passed a similar bill.
"This bill doesn't constitute real reform," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip. "Instead, it strips citizens of their constitutional rights to free speech. We ought to let voters decide through instant disclosure [of campaign documents], so they will be able to see where people are collecting their money and spending it."
Critics also argued that under the legislation, special interests would gain more, not less, influence over elections because outside groups and wealthy individuals could spend money independently of the parties.
In one of the most serious threats to the bill, opponents tried in vain to have its provisions take effect today, instead of at the end of this year's election season.
"They just want to make it harder for me," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, which would be very reluctant to apply the measure to campaigns already under way this year.
House Republican leaders, who have been resisting similar measures for years, seized early in the debate yesterday on what they called a "loophole" provision that was added late Tuesday night. They contended that the provision would allow party committees to use soft money to pay off debts for which current law says soft money can't be used. They said the provision would create a boon for debt-ridden Democrats.
Ari Fleischer, President Bush's spokesman, called the provision "unfair, unwarranted and unwise."
"The president still wants to sign something that improves the system," Fleischer said, calling on the House to remove the "troubling" language from the bill.
But Fleischer stopped short of saying that the president would veto legislation that included that provision. And Republican opponents warned those in their party, as they have for weeks, that they expect Bush to sign any campaign finance measure that emerges from Congress.
The bill's sponsors insisted that there was no loophole and said opponents' interpretation was faulty. But they maneuvered this morning to clarify the provision before a final House vote on the bill. At the same time, the measure's supporters said critics had seized on the provision as a way to try to kill campaign finance reform.
"Do I wish we had said, 'Under no circumstances could soft money be used for this?'" Shays said outside the House chamber. "Yes, because it makes it ambiguous enough to give people an opportunity to raise the question. But if it wasn't this, it would be something else. We know we have opponents who intend to take apart any part of this that isn't clear in intent."
As the debate wore on, the chief sponsors of the Senate version, McCain and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, roamed the halls outside the House chamber trying to prevent defections.
Meantime, interest groups on both sides were lobbying furiously by telephone. Charlton Heston of the National Rife Association placed calls to House members, trying to win support for an amendment to exempt gun rights from any curbs on issue ads. The amendment was narrowly defeated.
With the specter of Enron haunting the intensely personal debate, supporters of the bill argued that the financial misdeeds of the politically well-connected company underscored the need to diminish the influence of special-interest money in federal campaigns.
"There is a cloud hanging over this Capitol and the White House because of the Enron scandal," Meehan told colleagues. He predicted that Bush would sign the measure because "he wants this stain removed."
Among House members from Maryland, supporters of the legislation included Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, all Democrats; and Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore and Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, both Republicans.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County who was a lead sponsor of an alternative proposal that would limit, but not ban, soft money to national parties voted for the Shays-Meehan bill on the final tally.
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland, both Republicans, voted against it.
Soft money was originally intended to be used by the national parties for "party-building" activities, such as voter registration. But over the years, soft money has increasingly been used to support presidential and congressional campaigns, largely through television advertising. It exceeded $400 million in the 2000 election.
Corporations such as Enron typically donate millions of dollars to both parties. They also contribute limited "hard dollars" directly to individual candidates.
The Shays-Meehan bill would ban soft money donations to national political committees.
State and local parties could continue to collect soft money, but no more than $10,000 from any donor per year. And that soft money could be used only for get-out-the-vote efforts and voter registration.
The measure would also bar the use of corporate and union dues money for televised "issue" ads that mention a federal candidate and air within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Such ads could continue to run if they are financed with direct, hard dollar contributions to political action committees.
Individual donors would be limited to overall contributions of $95,000 to national political parties and federal candidates during a two-year cycle. No more than $57,500 could be given to party organizations, and no more than $37,500 to candidates for president or Congress.
In one major change from the Senate version of the bill, the House voted yesterday to eliminate a provision that television broadcast outlets could charge political candidates only their lowest rate over the previous six months for campaign ads. Supporters of the provision said it would reduce the cost of campaigns, but broadcasters lobbied heavily against it.
In a move that made the bill closer to the Senate version, the House backed a change intended to help candidates running against wealthy, self-financed opponents.
The House voted 218-211 to raise the limit on direct, hard dollar contributions to House candidates to $2,000 per election cycle, from the current $1,000. A similar increase for Senate candidates was included in the Senate-passed version of the bill.
The Enron scandal helped supporters gain the last few names of the 218 needed on a petition to force House leaders to bring the legislation to a vote this week.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert told Republican colleagues that the legislation could cost their party its narrow majority in the House, and he made opposition to the bill an issue of party loyalty.
"There's a lot of fear of change," said Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican who supports the legislation. "But I think a lot of the fear is unjustified. I think the world will still go on, and the passion of the moment and the heat of this time will pass."