House to vote on campaign spending legislation next week

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The House is heading toward a climactic vote next week on how best to rein in massive spending that has come to dominate the nation's federal elections.

Prodded by a grass-roots effort by House lawmakers, Republican leaders announced Tuesday that they will devote Feb. 12-13 to proposals to overhaul the nation's campaign finance laws.

``I expect that there will be a vigorous debate on this issue that will reflect well on the House of Representatives,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Hastert, who opposes the leading campaign spending bill offered by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., announced the dates after conferring with House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

The vote will give Shays and Meehan supporters their best chance in years to bring about the most significant changes in campaign spending rules since the post-Watergate era of the mid-1970s.

The Shays-Meehan bill would ban soft money donations, which corporations, unions and wealthy individuals now make to federal political parties. It also bars unions, corporations and some independent groups from broadcasting certain types of political advertising within 60 days of an election or 30 days of a primary.

Giving of soft money to the parties has exploded from $86 million in the 1992 presidential election to some $500 million in 2000.

Shays-Meehan probably will be opposed by a GOP-backed measure, sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, that would require more disclosure of campaign contributions and would limit but not ban soft money.

Legislation very similar to the Shays-Meehan bill, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., passed the Senate last year. It is the goal of Shays-Meehan supporters to defeat the Ney bill and any Republican amendments so that they can send a bill back to the Senate that can be endorsed quickly and sent on to the White House.

Their fear is that if the bill has to go to a House-Senate conference to resolve differences, opponents of campaign spending limits will try to block attempts at compromise.

The Shays-Meehan bill has the backing of a large majority of Democrats and a minority of Republicans. Most Republicans and the GOP leaders oppose the soft money ban, arguing that it violates constitutional free speech rights.

President Bush also opposes the soft money ban but has made clear to Republicans that they cannot count on him to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

House GOP leaders gave supporters of campaign spending limits a vote last July, but the legislation was pulled after the two sides clashed over the procedures for debate.

To force the leaders to bring the issue back to the floor, Shays-Meehan supporters resorted to the rarely used tactic called a ``discharge petition,'' through which the signatures of 218 lawmakers, half the House, can force the leaders to allow a vote on legislation.

That 218 figure was reached last month against the background of the Enron Corp. scandal and revelations that the collapsed energy company had donated millions of dollars to politicians from both parties over the past decade.

``The Enron debacle has created a climate that I believe will make it very difficult for members to vote against reform,'' said Feingold. ``The time has come to ban soft money, and we're going to get it done.''

Shays and Meehan, in a joint statement, echoed that sentiment: ``The unfolding Enron scandal underscores the need for reform. The House has twice passed this bill by overwhelming majorities, and we are hopeful we will do it again.''

Versions of Shays-Meehan passed in 1998 and 1999, but in both those sessions of Congress the Senate, then under Republican control, refused to go along. Senate passage last year came after Democrats gained a majority in the chamber.