WASHINGTON -- The chances that the House will approve a campaign finance bill early this year have been improved enormously by the uproar over the bankruptcy of Enron Corp.
Last year, 214 House members signed a discharge petition that would need 218 signatures to force House leaders to allow a floor vote on campaign finance reforms.
By the end of next week, the petition's supporters expect that they will have picked up at least three of the four signatures necessary.
Led by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Martin Meehan, D-Mass., they expect overwhelming approval by the House of their version of a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in the Senate.
The McCain-Feingold bill would ban contributions to national parties of "soft money," gifts that exceed the federal limit for gifts from individuals; come directly from corporations, unions or nonprofit advocacy groups; or do both.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a pro-reform watchdog group, reported that since 1989:
* At least $3.5 million, or 60 percent, of the $5,951,570 Enron gave to federal candidates and the national parties was in soft money that would be banned under the bill.
* Soft money also accounted for $649,000, or 12 percent, of the $5,219,492 that Enron auditor Arthur Andersen gave to federal candidates and national parties.
"The Enron scandal has thrust a real human face on campaign finance reform," said Meehan's press secretary, Bridger McGaw. "A lot of people found campaign finance reform hard to grasp. But now you have thousands of Enron employees who have lost their life savings while large sums of corporate treasury money are given to political parties in Washington."
The Enron bankruptcy has been a setback for those opposed to the McCain-Feingold bill, conceded John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government and an advocate of looser campaign finance laws.
Two of the new signatures on the discharge petition are expected to come from members who indicated that they would stop holding out for a bill stricter than McCain-Feingold.
"I have decided to sign the discharge petition," said Rep. Corrine Brown, R-Fla., describing the "Enron debacle" as "the dark side of campaign contributions."
Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay signed the petition in July but withdrew his name because he was convinced that a lack of soft money would make it harder for the Democratic Party to help low-income candidates run in low-income districts.
But this week he said he may sign it again, his press secretary, Melinda Roth, said Friday.
Signatures from Brown and Clay would leave McCain-Feingold supporters short two signatures. But they would only need one new signer; Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., promised long ago that he would supply the final signature after 217 other members sign up.