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US HOUSE readies for battle on campaign finance legislation

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House soon returns to campaign finance legislation, with the usual resistance from the right and new dissension on the left standing in the way of the best chance in years to change how the nation pays for elections.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has promised he will open the floor to debate after the July 4 recess. Combatants are lining up in advance to challenge the perennial champions of campaign finance overhaul, Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass.

Shays said he and Meehan plan to announce the final version of their bill this week, trying to mirror the bill by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., that passed the Senate in April.

There's no shortage of alternatives. Twenty-three different campaign finance bills have been filed with the House Administration Committee, said its chairman, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio. They range from those, like Shays-Meehan, that would ban unregulated so-called soft money donations to political parties to a version that would effectively end all limits on campaign spending.

Ney himself is preparing what will be the base bill when the House takes up the issue. He insists that ``I'm not the undertaker'' of the campaign finance change. But his legislation is expected to cut into the Democratic base by appealing to members of the Congressional Black Caucus who oppose aspects of Shays-Meehan.

Failure to hold that 38-member caucus could be disastrous for the fragile coalition of most Democrats and a smaller number of Republicans who have backed Shays-Meehan in the past. They hope to pass a bill that the Senate can easily accept without the need for a House-Senate conference stacked with Republicans opposed to the legislation.

Shays and Meehan pushed their bill through the House in 1998 and 1999, only to see it die in the Senate. Senate passage this year gives them an opening that will not come again easily.

The McCain-Feingold bill bans soft money _ the unlimited contributions that unions, corporations and individuals may donate to political parties. It restricts political advertising by outside groups in the final days of an election and raises the limit on hard money contributions that an individual can make directly to a candidate from $1,000 per election, a figure set in 1974, to $2,000.

That increase was added to the Senate bill to help it win needed votes. But Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Md., who heads the black caucus task force on campaign finance, said there was ``near unanimous opposition'' in his group to such an increase, fearing it will hurt candidates whose donors are not as wealthy.

``Candidates raising money from moderate-income constituents are at a distinct disadvantage compared to an opponent with more well-heeled friends,'' he said at a hearing last week.

Some in the black caucus also question the wisdom of a total ban on soft money. Wynn is proposing a $50,000 cap for such contributions and would limit them to voter registration and education and get-out-the-vote drives. He said the Florida presidential election showed that soft money, when used properly, can mobilize minority voters and increase turnout.

Under current law, soft money is not supposed to be used to help elect candidates. But in reality, it pays for ``issue advertisements'' that are virtually identical to campaign commercials.

Ney says he agrees that soft money should be used for voter drives and is considering the other black caucus request that the hard money limit not be raised. Both Ney on the one hand, and Shays and Meehan on the other, have been seeking out black lawmakers to listen to their concerns and win their support.

``They are the conscience of the Congress and they have a real opportunity to speak up for those who can't make large contributions,'' said Spencer Overton, a law professor at University of California, Davis, who is active in the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, a campaign finance reform group that opposes increasing the $1,000 hard-money limit.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a senior member of the caucus and one of several in the group who strongly support Shays-Meehan, said he was confident that things would fall into place once people air their various concerns. ``I can't imagine'' that caucus members would vote to defeat legislation that finally puts some brakes on runaway campaign spending, he said.

``We're reaching out to all our colleagues about the bill,'' said Meehan. Black caucus members have supported their efforts in the past, he said, and ``I hope we'll get it again.''

Passing a campaign finance bill that the Senate, now under Democratic control, could easily adopt is hardly the end of the road. President Bush, while avoiding an outright veto threat, has said he opposes banning soft money.

And even if Bush signs a bill into law, it faces immediate court challenges by those who say spending limits violate First Amendment free speech rights. Even this week, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling that could end all limits on regulated contributions raised by political parties and then turned over to candidates.
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