Supporters of campaign finance legislation claimed victory Thursday in their drive to force the issue to the House floor, setting the stage for a vote this year on a bill to reduce the role of money in political campaigns.
"The American people deserve a full debate about how campaigns are financed," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., who provided the 218th – and decisive – signature on a legislative petition to force the bill to the floor.
No date was immediately set for debate and vote on the bill, which would make the most far-reaching changes in the nation's political finance system since the Watergate reforms of a quarter-century ago.
The bill would virtually ban soft money, the unlimited donations that unions, corporations and individuals make to the political parties. Most of the money is spent on scathing television commercials that stop just short of explicitly advocating a candidate's election or defeat. The measure also would ban certain types of political advertising in the final 60 days of a campaign.
The two parties raised nearly $500 million in soft money in the two-year period that ended on Dec. 31, 2000, and have continued to collect donations measured in the millions of dollars in the current election cycle.
Supporters of the measure launched their petition drive last summer, after a fiery blowup in the House that derailed their efforts to win approval, and the Republican leadership said it had no plans for additional debate.
The petition drive moved ahead steadily last summer, but activity virtually ceased in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as other issues took center stage in Congress.
Efforts to gain signatures resumed late last year, and by Wednesday, it was clear supporters would prevail.
"I think eventually it's going to happen," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert in an interview.
House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt lobbied wavering Democrats to lend their support in recent days, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the bill's most prominent sponsor, was pressing Republicans.
In all, 197 Democrats signed the petition, joined by 20 Republicans and one independent.
Gephardt personally escorted Neal and Rep. Corrinne Brown, D-Fla., into the House chamber to add signatures number 217 and 218 to the petition. "Let's do it," he said.
Earlier in the day, Republican Reps. Charles Bass of New Hampshire and Tom Petri of Wisconsin had signed on, less than 24 hours after conferring privately with Hastert in his Capitol office.
Supporters of the bill claimed fresh impetus from the collapse of Enron, the energy trading company now in bankruptcy. The firm made millions in soft money donations over the years. "I think Enron focuses the debate," said Neal.
But in fact, Neal had long ago pledged to provide the 218th signature on the petition, and Brown had privately given assurances to Democrats several days ago that she would also add her name.
© 2002 The Associated Press