Published on Thursday, February 14, 2002 in the New York Times
240-to-189 Vote Caps Seven-Year Effort to Ban Soft Money
by Alison Mitchell
WASHINGTON, Thursday, Feb. 14 - The House early this morning approved an overhaul of the way campaigns are financed, putting the nation's political system at the brink of its most sweeping change in a generation.
The Senate passed almost identical legislation last March.
The Republican House leadership fought hard against the bill, with Speaker J. Dennis Hastert warning that it could lead Republicans to lose control of the chamber. But with the Enron scandal pushing the bill forward, 41 Republicans broke with their leadership to join an overwhelming majority of Democrats in favor of final passage.
Representative Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said, ``I'm willing to pay a price in having my friends mad at me.'' With special interests giving millions of dollars to the political parties, he said, ``you'll never convince me it doesn't affect legislation.''
Obstacles to passage remain. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who is a longtime foe of the bill, has vowed to filibuster against any effort to bring the bill directly to the Senate floor, bypassing the usual House-Senate conference. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster but the bill only secured 59 votes when it won Senate passage.
And President Bush has never said unconditionally that he will sign the measure, though advisers have said they see no advantage in taking a stand against Congress on the legislation. If the bill is signed, its opponents are expected to mount a court challenge to test its constitutionality.
The House legislation sponsored by Representatives Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, and Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts would ban soft money, which grew to nearly $500 million in the last presidential election, and require the political parties to rely on smaller, more closely regulated ``hard money'' donations. It would also impose new regulations on thinly disguised campaign ads by outside groups, prohibiting their broadcast within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.
In exchange for a ban on soft money, the measure allows some new fund-raising. It would give donors the right to contribute as much as $10,000 to state political parties for get-out-the-vote drives. And it would raise from $1,000 to $2,000 each election the limit on how much an individual can give to Senate and presidential candidates. Those provisions were added in the Senate.
The House voted, 218 to 211, to have the $2,000 limit apply to House candidates as well.
Supporters said the bill would reduce the power of special interests and combat public cynicism about politics. It was fiercely opposed by Republican leaders who said that it violated free-speech rights and that their party needed the donations to offset organized labor's get-out-the- vote drives on behalf of Democrats.
Throughout the day, House members debated whether six-figure contributions corrupted the political system or were a form of legitimate political participation.
``I did not march across the bridge in Selma,'' thundered Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, recalling his days in the civil rights movement, ``to become a part of a political system so corrupt.''
Republican leaders and many of the party's rank and file countered that stopping such fund-raising by the parties would strengthen single- issue interest groups.
``This drives a lot of money away from political parties to interest groups, right and left,'' said Representative Thomas M. Davis III, a Virginia Republican. ``For moderation this legislation is the death knell.''
Supporters of the bill invoked the Enron scandal. Representative James C. Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican who is running a House investigation into the company's collapse, recalled how it donated heavily to both parties. ``This is not about philosophy,'' he said. ``It is about access and influence and it corrupts our process.''
For much of Wednesday the debate took on a surreal quality as Republican opponents tried to scuttle the bill by offering even more stringent limits on money in politics, then criticized Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan for not going far enough.
``Those that constantly say they want to ban soft money bring a bill to this floor that is seriously flawed,'' said Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, the majority whip.
For years, the campaign overhaul bill died in Republican-run filibusters in the Senate. But Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, put the measure at the center of his surprisingly potent maverick bid for the presidency in 2000 and last year won Senate passage of the bill.
A move to follow up in the House collapsed last summer when the bill's proponents voted against the rules for debate the Republican leadership had set, saying they had been rigged to assure defeat. Republicans countered that the proponents lacked the votes to win and used the rules as an excuse.
Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, refused to set a new vote and it took a six-month petition drive by supporters to force the bill back onto the House floor.
For all the uncertainty about who would win, in the end, Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan commanded the House floor across two days of debate, defeating two rival campaign bills as well as 10 attempts by Republicans to change their bill enough that it would have to be sent to a House- Senate conference committee. Often, controversial legislation never emerges from such committees.
The advocates for new campaign- finance rules said the Enron scandal gave their measure new life. They also said the bill's passage by the House twice before, in 1998 and 1999, helped their cause; members with second thoughts already had voting records on the bill and would have to explain any change of mind.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company