Shays-Meehan Faces Hurdles

ByMarc J. Ambinder & Matthew Silverstein

W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 25, 2002 -- It might have seemed like an historic day on Capital Hill Thursday. Propelled by momentum from the Enron collapse, a so-called discharge petition in the House received enough signatures to force a debate and vote on the Shays-Meehan bill, the capstone of campaign finance reform efforts in the chamber

It was only the second time in history that a discharge petition got the needed majority of members' signatures.

But the bill faces several hurdles before passage. And then, perhaps, a long conference process, where the House and Senate try and reconcile their bills. And even then, the president could veto the measure. (His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said the president would decide what to do when and if the bill reaches his desk).

For one thing, Democrats are worried about amendments that would kill the bill or gut its core provisions. They also fear that the political fallout from Enron could wane by the time the campaign finance measure actually comes to a vote. And the date of that vote could be as early as a month from now, according to Rep. Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., a sponsor. Or not until just before Congress adjourns in June, which would be the preference of opponents.

Meehan said he is cautiously optimistic. "We have a lot of work to do, but I am cautiously optimistic we can get this bill passed."

Meehan's bill would ban lightly regulated "soft money" contributions that corporations, unions, and individuals make to political parties for party building or get-out-the-vote activities.

The Senate passed a bill with similar language.

Bill Had Been Blocked Earlier

Last spring, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he would only put the Shays-Meehan bill to a vote in the House if several conditions we met. Proponents of the bill argued at the time that those conditions were too onerous. Instead, they collected signatures for a petition to force a vote. On Thursday, House minority leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., announced the inclusion of the final two signatures — Republican representatives Thomas Petri of Wisconsin and Charles Bass of New Hampshire gave their nods — which put the so-called "discharge position" over the top.

Opponents of the bill claim that campaign finance reform will be ineffective and unconstitutional. Roger Pilon , the vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said he expects the Supreme Court would rule that certain campaign finance regulations violate the First Amendment.

The issue does not merely pit Republicans against Democrats. The bill's co-sponsor, Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays, is a Republican, as is Arizona Sen . John McCain, the Senate's chief proponent of reform. Both have said that the profusion of money in politics corrupts otherwise honest legislators.

Though opponents of the bill tend to cite similar constitutional and practical arguments, several strands of the Democratic Party's core web of interest groups have expressed doubts over the years. The Congressional Black Caucus, for example, contends that many minority candidates rely heavily on soft money, and that a ban would harm them. Labor unions fear losing a key source of their political influence — donating large sums of soft money to Democratic party organizations and to key Congressional representatives. And many Democratic campaign officials privately hope the measure goes away.

Grover Norquist, an opponent of Shays-Meehan and the organizer of what he calls the "center-right coalition" and the president of Americans for Tax Reform, said, "If you just ban soft money, about two-thirds to three-fourths of Democratic money would be illegal."

Still, supporters are optimistic.

"Our momentum is on an upward arc," said Jeff Cronin of Common Cause, a good-government group. The discharge petition is one of Cronin's examples. Members of both parties are historically reluctant to wrest control from the majority party, for fear of setting a precedent.

And observers on both sides are unsure whether President Bush would risk vetoing a popular bill that would allow his detractors to paint him as against campaign finance, particularly if the administration wants to distance itself from Enron.

Hastert will reportedly confer with Republican colleagues on Shays-Meehan this weekend at a House Republican retreat. .

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