WASHINGTON — The White House is working through the Republican Party to scuttle campaign finance legislation before the House this week while protecting President Bush from any political fallout, advisers to Mr. Bush said today.
With White House consent, the Republican National Committee is lobbying to defeat the Shays-Meehan bill, the campaign finance overhaul measure that would ban the large unlimited political donations known as soft money.
An internal "target list" compiled by the Republican Party identifies 33 Republicans who had previously voted for the bill when it was unlikely to become law. These members are seen as undecided about how to vote this time — and potentially available to back amendments that would ultimately weaken the legislation or kill it outright.
"We need to ask them what they need for cover," the internal document states, "and try to support our amendments." The party's effort came as the House Republican leadership mounted a similar drive to amend the bill.
Republican Party officials sent the target list to lobbyists, hoping that they could try to persuade wavering lawmakers to oppose the legislation.
The White House's deliberations were just part of the intense maneuverings today by all sides as the House prepared for the campaign finance debate that is set to start on Tuesday and end Wednesday or Thursday.
Legislation to ban soft-money contributions passed the Senate last year in a 59-to-41 vote, prodded by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who put the bill at the center of his losing presidential primary run against Mr. Bush in 2000.
Now its supporters are trying to pass the same legislation in the House, where it is sponsored by Representatives Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut, and Martin T. Meehan, Democrat of Massachusetts. The two should have an advantage because an earlier version of the bill passed the House by comfortable margins in 1998 and 1999.
As part of the lobbying against it, Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman, today sent a memorandum to Republican members of Congress, declaring that the "various reform proposals are of vital concern to Republican candidates."
Mr. Racicot included a list of principles that Mr. Bush outlined last year of what he would like a campaign finance bill to contain.
Mr. Racicot did not specifically tell members how to vote, but in the memorandum he wrote, "As you consider each amendment, I recommend that you ask yourself whether what is being proposed reflects President Bush's principles and makes our campaign finance system more fair, even-handed and balanced."
Advisers to Mr. Bush said the White House was working through the Republican Party to protect the president. After the Enron Corporation debacle, particularly, aides said they did not want Mr. Bush to take a visible role lest it appear as though he was interfering with efforts to tighten campaign finance laws.
Party officials involved in the move said that they had the strong support of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, but that Mr. Rove hardly needed to convince them. "I'm not sure Karl's had to encourage them much," a Bush adviser said. "At the R.N.C., they're like drug addicts. The party thinks it would be a great idea to kick the habit, but not right now."
Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said he was aware of Mr. Racicot's memorandum but insisted it was "absolutely not true" that the White House was working through the party, even though the White House effectively controls it.
"There are no phone banks, no calls being made to members from the president," Mr. Bartlett said. "We've told people consistently that opponents of campaign finance legislation should not count on a veto from the president."
Mr. Bush has told Republican lawmakers who want him to work against the bill that he has no intention to inject himself in the fight, and his advisers said it was likely that he would sign campaign finance legislation should it reach his desk.
Still, at the White House, Mr. Bush's advisers said, the hope is that the bill does not get that far.
Beyond Enron, Mr. Bush's advisers said, the president was reluctant to speak out because White House officials were split concerning whether the bill would truly hurt Republicans. "It's not clear that everyone at the White House thinks this bill will be awful for the Republican Party," one adviser said.
Another adviser said there was also a sense in the White House that if the legislation was going to pass anyway, there was no political advantage for Mr. Bush to get involved in a losing cause.
Former Representative Bill Paxon, a New York Republican who is close to the White House, said officials there were not bluffing when they told House members not to count on Mr. Bush's vetoing a campaign finance bill.
Asked if the Enron concern it even more politically disadvantageous for Mr. Bush to take part in the campaign finance battle, Mr. Paxon said, "There's no doubt it does."
Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan said the collapse of Enron, and how the company had showered contributions on politicians, should help them.
"I believe the Enron scandal has galvanized public support," Mr. Meehan said today.
The measure would also rein in some issue advertising by outside groups in the periods just before elections.
Republican leaders in the House fiercely oppose the measure and are planning strategy to kill it or substantially change it.
J. Dennis Hastert, the Republican of Illinois who as the House speaker commands great loyalty from Republicans, told his party's House members last week in a closed-door meeting that the end of soft money could cause Republicans to lose control of the House.
Republicans said that Representative Dick Armey of Texas, the majority leader, would put forward a new Republican campaign finance bill on Tuesday.
Republicans were also devising amendments to the Shays-Meehan bill to make it different from the Senate version. That would send the bill to a House-Senate conference, where there would be another chance to weaken or kill it.
No one was sure what would happen in the next two days, but Mr. Shays said, "I'd rather be us than them. We should win it. I think our cause is just."
Under the rules for debate, the Shays-Meehan bill will be pitted against two rival bills; whichever bill emerges will then be subject to amendment.
One competing measure sponsored by Representatives Robert Ney, Republican of Ohio, and Albert Wynn, Democrat of Maryland, would cap soft-money donations to each of the national political committees at $75,000 a year.
It would also allow unlimited soft- money contributions to continue to state political parties. But Republican vote-counters said that they did not expect the measure to get enough votes and that they were looking for other ways to defeat the Shays-Meehan bill.
Mr. Armey, aides said, planned to take advantage of his right under the rules to submit a bill of his own.
Mr. Bush has backed banning soft- money contributions from unions and corporations but not individuals. Advocates of a wider ban argue that would be a hard position to endorse in the face of the Enron debacle.
One strategist working with Mr. Shays and Mr. Meehan called the idea the "Kenny Boy exception" — using Mr. Bush's nickname for Kenneth L. Lay, the former Enron chairman — because it would still allow figures like Mr. Lay to make six- figure contributions to the parties.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company