- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

Campaign finance reform supporters announced yesterday they will circulate a petition to bring their bill back to the House floor, bypassing Republican leaders' opposition to the measure.

The reform bill was poised for a vote last week, but a majority of the House all but one of the Democrats, joined by 19 Republicans voted against the Republican leadership's rules for debating and amending the bill. That vote sent the bill back to a committee, where it remains and Republican leaders have shown no inclination to bring the bill forward again.

So the bill's supporters, led by members of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats, yesterday filed a discharge petition a measure that, if signed by a majority of the House, would allow the bill to bypass the committee and come straight to the floor for a vote.

"Campaign finance reform is coming back to the floor of the House, and this time the rules will be fair," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat and one of two primary sponsors of the bill, along with Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.

The reform bill prohibits national political parties from collecting "soft money" and restricts the way parties and interest groups can run issue ads. Republican leaders oppose that, and instead put forth their own proposal to limit, rather than end, soft money the largely unrestricted contributions for party-building activities such as get-out-the-vote drives.

Discharge petitions have been used on campaign finance reform before. In 1998 and 1999, it was only after the Blue Dogs began petitions that the bill came to the floor for a vote. In those cases, when it became clear backers were going to get 218 signatures, the House leadership scheduled a vote.

But this year Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, had scheduled a day for debate last Thursday. Republicans say reform backers squandered their chance by scuttling the debate rules.

Still, backers said they expect to get the 218 signatures the petition needs.

"We don't know who's going to sign and who's not going to sign, but I feel good about our ability to do this," said Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.

Mr. Shays said he expects 190 of the chamber's Democrats to sign the petition, as well as many of the 19 Republicans who voted against the rule last week. In addition, he said, four other Republicans have approached him to ask to sign the petition.

But a spokeswoman for Majority Whip Tom DeLay said the Texas Republican doesn't think the votes are available to get the petition approved.

There are several forces at work. The past two times the House passed the bill it was certain the Senate would kill it, so many members, including Republicans, considered it a "free vote"; this time that's not the case. And some Democrats would like to see the bill fail because they think it hurts their party.

Under the rules governing discharge petitions, members can begin to sign the petition seven legislative days after it is filed. Backers said they will take stock of how many signatures they have at the beginning of August, just before the summer recess, and then use the recess to try to convince others to help them over the top. They said the bill could reach the floor in September.

There are other options open to reformers if the discharge petition fails including attaching the provisions to another bill or voting down procedural rules on other measures in the House, thereby blocking debate on other issues.

Backers have kicked those possibilities around, but for now they are focusing on the petition.

"We intend to get a vote on the floor of the House this session on this bill, one way or the other," Mr. Meehan said.

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